Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration has a big, big problem.
It’s not any of the problems the administration would list as their highest priorities — public safety, homelessness, economic recovery or anything similar. This is a problem the administration created itself, and one that has only worsened as time has passed and more information about the administration’s dealings has come to light.
The most serious problem the municipality’s administration is facing right now: Anchorage residents can no longer trust them.
From the outset of Mayor Bronson’s administration, officials have been tight with information, often refusing comment or relying on one-way communication methods. Perhaps the most prominent example of this tendency was municipal manager Amy Demboski’s iron-fisted order that all communication from Assembly members to city departments be routed through her office.
In and of itself, this tendency isn’t necessarily cause for mistrust — it’s understandable that a new administration with an adversarial stance toward the city’s legislative branch would seek to be kept in the loop about any plans or action the Assembly was undertaking. But it’s not a basis for a trusting relationship, and having to route all communication through a hostile intermediary creates a serious bottleneck in the municipality’s workflow.
The administration’s credibility issues worsened during the contentious debate over the municipal mask mandate in October. At the Assembly’s Oct. 7 meeting, matters reached a head when administration officials ordered security officers out of the Assembly chambers and removed plexiglass shielding as testifiers hurled invective at Assembly members. During that meeting, Demboski herself ordered that the livestream of the proceedings be cut, which would have blocked the public from witnessing the spectacle — one that looked and felt like it could descend to violence at any moment. Fortunately, Demboski’s improper order was refused. But when the ADN and other outlets asked if Demboski had ordered the meeting feed cut, mayor’s office spokesman Corey Allen Young dodged, saying first that he was “not aware of anyone in the administration attempting to make the fire department stop the livestream.” Later, as more information made it clear that such an attempt had been made, he said only that the feed had not been interrupted and would not address the fact that Demboski had, in fact, tried to have it stopped.
Based on Demboski’s actions at that meeting, we called for her removal as municipal manager in December 2021, writing that her actions constituted a serious breach of public trust that could not be healed while she remained in the administration. The last sentence of that editorial read, in part, that unless Demboski were removed from her position, “the public can’t have confidence that the antidemocratic measures she has taken won’t be repeated — or worse — in the future.”
Unfortunately, that appears to have happened.
Another disputed event took place at that Oct. 7 meeting — in addition to the administration ordering private security out of Assembly chambers, the administration allegedly told then-Anchorage Police Chief Ken McCoy to also remove APD officers from the meeting. Demboski disputes this — in a message to Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance, Demboski wrote, “At no time during the October 7, 2021, meeting of the Anchorage Assembly were officers of the Anchorage Police Department (APD) directed to leave Assembly chambers.” But Assembly member Christopher Constant said he talked to McCoy after his resignation and McCoy verified that such a demand had been made. It’s clear that the Assembly’s investigation of that incident should include an interview with McCoy — it’s not possible for Demboski’s and Constant’s accounts of what happened to both be true.
But at least one administration lie, we now know, was bald-faced, blatant and incontrovertible. In December, the Alaska Landmine political blog included an item alleging that Mayor Bronson ordered a halt to fluoridation of the city’s water supply on Oct. 1, in violation of city code. Reporters asked mayoral spokesman Young about the incident, to which he replied that it “did not happen.”
Exactly one day later, the administration backpedaled, telling the Daily News that it did happen, with Young explaining away his untruthful statement by saying he was “on leave when the Landmine story was published, that he was initially mistaken about the fluoride situation and that he didn’t then have the details or full information.”
We now know that wasn’t true. Included in the materials the Assembly requested as part of its investigation was an email, direct and succinct, from Deputy Municipal Manager Kolby Hickel to Young. Sent at 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2021 — just an hour and 20 minutes after the fluoride had been shut off, and before it had been restored — the email began:
Here are a few pics of today’s tour at the Eklutna plant.
A few key takeaways: At 2:55 p.m. Mayor Bronson directed the staff to stop adding fluoride to our drinking water.”
Later that day, Young replied: “Thank You Kolby! I appreciate you!”
That exchange took place more than two months before Young stated flatly that the fluoridation halt “did not happen.”
Where do we go from here?
Perhaps Young and the mayor’s office will attempt to parse this obvious lie as some kind of misunderstanding or earnest misstatement, but at this point it’s clear: Key figures in Mayor Bronson’s administration are perfectly willing to obfuscate and lie in service of their own ends, even about actions that were illegal.
This is an inexcusable breach of the public trust. If the administration will lie to the media and the public about its actions, how can the Assembly trust that its communications about other serious issues facing Anchorage — homelessness plans, for instance — are honest? If the administration has a political incentive to hide information or to lie, how can we have any faith they won’t do so, given that they’ve already gone down that road before? Lying to the public is a big step toward outright corruption.
Mayor Bronson owes the people of Anchorage a succinct explanation and must take immediate action to show us that this won’t be tolerated in his administration. Anything short of that is tacit approval of his staff lying to the public, and Anchorage residents will, rightly, question his credibility forever after.
In her response to the Assembly’s request for documents related to their investigation of alleged improper actions by the mayor’s office, Demboski told LaFrance that she found the staff time spent on collecting the material disappointing. In what might be a Freudian slip, Demboski wrote that “Taxpayers expect elected officials to be better stewards of municipal resources.”
We sure do.