An already volatile Anchorage political climate ratcheted up another notch recently when Assembly member Christopher Constant introduced an ordinance that would define circumstances under which the municipality’s legislative body can remove the mayor.
As past opinions in this space have demonstrated, Mayor Dave Bronson has had an ignominious start to his three-year term: He has feuded with the Assembly members at every turn, often making intentional moves to spite them and trying to make end-runs around their stated duties. He has acted impetuously in ways that risked violating city code, as with the fiasco around Anchorage water fluoridation. His administration has seen substantial turnover in key positions, threatening progress in dealing with some of Anchorage’s biggest problems. And members of his administration have lied to the public.
But the latest escalation in the tensions in city government has been supplied by Constant and his proposal to allow the Assembly to remove the mayor from office. Despite Bronson’s missteps, it shouldn’t be the Assembly’s call whether he — or any mayor, for that matter — sees his term through. Here’s why.
The balance of power
Under Constant’s proposed ordinance, there would be 13 vaguely defined reasons the Assembly could remove the mayor, such as “failure to faithfully execute the directives of a duly enacted ordinance” or a “substantial breach of a statutory, code or charter-imposed duty.” What constitutes a “substantial breach,” you ask? Well, when it comes down to it, a substantial breach would be whatever eight members of the Assembly decide it is, in the same manner that grounds for recall are whatever a majority of voters agree they are.
There are circumstances under which the power of removing the government’s chief executive properly rest with the legislative body. At the federal level, for instance, the requirement is that a president be both impeached by a majority of members in the 435-seat House of Representatives, as well as indicted by two-thirds of the 100-member Senate. That’s a high bar, as we’ve witnessed twice in the past decade. Finding agreement among a between a body as large and diverse as all of Congress naturally ensures that removal of the executive will only succeed in the most dire and extreme instances of malfeasance and not for petty politics.
But when only eight members of what will soon be a 12-member Assembly can remove the mayor, that’s not exactly tough to manage. The Assembly regularly musters eight votes, and sometimes more, to override mayoral vetoes. Vesting this massive power over a co-equal branch of government tilts the balance of power toward the Assembly, to a level that is dangerous and would invite abuse.
From a practical standpoint, it’s clear why this ordinance is emerging now, and Constant has effectively said as much himself. “What I’m trying to do is put in the code, a tool so that the mayor can understand that he can’t simply ignore the code, the law, the practices — which I believe he’s been doing in a substantive way since he got into office,” Constant said earlier this month, while reiterating that he doesn’t currently intend to seek Bronson’s removal. Put simply, the measure is a political stick, with which Assembly members can threaten the mayor if they see him as overstepping his authority. In this measure Constant seeks to arm the Assembly with a political nuclear option.
But no matter what Constant and other Assembly members say about not planning on using their new political nuke, given the contentious relationship between the legislative and executive branches, there’s plenty of reason for Anchorage residents to believe that the Assembly would move to oust Bronson at the slightest pretext if given the opportunity. And the partisan nature — even if only in appearance — of that maneuver would be disastrous for Anchorage, despite Assembly members claiming to be standing up against an out-of-control mayor.
If it’s not broke, don’t fix it
The reality is that Anchorage already has the option for removing a mayor that it needs: recall. If Assembly members see the mayor acting in a way that seriously breaches his responsibilities and the public trust, they should make the case to the public that Bronson — or any future mayor in the same position — should be removed. Yes, recall is a slower and more difficult process, but removing the highest elected official in a government should be. If Assembly members feel that Bronson has engaged in breaches that don’t meet the recall standard, they have recourse in the courts, an avenue with which they’re already familiar and which they’re already engaging.
The bottom line is this: Regardless of who controls which branch of government, in a municipal system, a mayor’s removal by the Assembly is not good governance. And if it were Mayor Bronson being removed by the current Assembly, using rules that current members drew up themselves, it would be inescapably partisan in the extreme. It would tear this city into pieces. We should stick with the measures that already exist for mayoral removal.