When it comes to Assembly business, there appear to be few norms Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration won’t upend in trying to stake out as much power as possible for the municipality’s executive branch. With a conservative mayor and liberal-dominated Assembly, a fair amount of conflict was inevitable, but the past week starkly displayed just how far Bronson is willing to go to stymie the legislative branch’s agenda.
The nadir of mayor-Assembly relations came, not surprisingly, during the ugly October debates over the municipality’s mask policy. In the sixth night of public comment on the then-proposed mandate, a procedural argument culminated in members of the mayor’s staff removing plexiglass shielding that provided a barrier between Assembly members and unmasked testifiers, as well as ordering security staff out of the auditorium where the meeting took place — despite a vocal, unruly crowd that made periodic threats toward Assembly members. The explanations that the mayor’s spokesman gave, that the plexiglass blocked testifiers’ view of some members of the Assembly and that the security officers were needed elsewhere, were transparently flimsy. Clearly, the message the administration was trying to convey was that Mayor Bronson thought he controlled the Assembly chamber, and he could make Assembly members’ lives more difficult if he wanted to.
In a separate fight, Bronson has tried multiple times to make an end-run around the Assembly’s role of confirming department heads. When the Assembly rejected Sami Graham, Bronson’s initial pick to run the library, he immediately appointed her as his chief of staff (an office which was, until that moment, already occupied by Craig Campbell), and said she would work out of the library — a move clearly intended more as a “gotcha” than as sober governance. Then when his second pick, Judy Eledge, came under fire for a similar lack of library experience as Graham and a checkered history of social media fiascoes, she resigned and Bronson appointed her deputy library director, a role the Assembly doesn’t have a say in confirming.
It was no surprise, then, that the Assembly moved quickly to clarify the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative. The group passed two ordinances on Nov. 11 — one that stated in plain terms that the Assembly chair is in charge of the chambers during meetings, and another that required newly appointed department heads to be confirmed by the Assembly within 60 days of assuming their positions. Both ordinances clarify what had, until this year, been broadly accepted as municipal policy. But Mayor Bronson, who called at least one of the measures illegal, vetoed both, only for the Assembly to overturn his vetoes.
Let’s be clear: Although this fight pits the conservative mayor against the liberal Assembly, it’s not about policy or politics. It’s about the balance of power in city governance and illustrates the dangers of concentrating that power in the mayor’s office. In the face of what would be a massive expansion of mayoral power, the Assembly is codifying the rules of meetings as they’ve always been understood, in a manner that preserves the influence of this co-equal branch of government. Under Mayor Bronson’s reading of his powers, he could turn the lights off in the Assembly chambers during a meeting if he wanted. He could shut off the heat. He could order the meeting livestream terminated, cutting off public access for those watching online and putting the Assembly in violation of the Alaska Open Meetings Act. If, as the mayor asserts, he has full and exclusive custody of all municipal resources, he could even lock the doors and keep the Assembly from meeting. Clearly, that’s a wrongheaded approach to governance, and it beggars belief that Anchorage’s charter was intended to imbue the executive branch with that degree of power.
Likewise, the Assembly’s move to require confirmation or rejection of municipal department heads within 60 days of their appointment is simply a way to close the loophole of keeping an “acting” department head indefinitely by appointing a new one every six months. There’s no question that city code intends that those positions be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Assembly in due course, with the Assembly acting as a check and balance to vet appointees and to hear public concerns about them. There’s no doubt that Mayor Bronson is frustrated by the rejection of some of his picks and hard scrutiny of others, but no mayor should be able to have carte blanche to install anyone they like in office, regardless of qualifications or lack thereof.
If Mayor Bronson and his administration took a step back, they’d see that setting a precedent of the mayor having complete control over municipal resources is a dangerous path to go down — and one they would surely decry themselves if one of Bronson’s liberal opponents had prevailed in the mayor’s race. A simple look at history shows us that the political pendulum swings both ways, so it stands to reason that the city will one day have a liberal mayor again; does Bronson want his legacy to be handing that mayor far more power?