The Anchorage ombudsman’s recent warning of the potential surveillance of municipal employees seeking his services brought a spotlight to a little-understood government position — one that serves a critical role at times like these, when an administration is in crisis.
Ombudsman Darrel Hess occupies a plain-looking office on the first floor of City Hall, and although his job sometimes brings him into the headlines, many residents don’t know he provides a unique and vital service in the municipality: As an ombudsman, it’s his job to investigate when someone tells him something has gone wrong in the municipal government.
The word “ombudsman” comes from Scandinavia, where the practice first became popular in the early 1800s. Loosely translated, it means “proxy” — that is, a proxy acting on behalf of the people whom the ombudsman represents. Without a point of contact empowered to investigate citizen complaints and recommend corrective action, most people both outside and inside government would be lost in a sea of bureaucracy when trying to report instances where the system is broken.
Here in the U.S., ombudsmen as a means of keeping government accountable and responsive became popular in the latter half of the 20th century — particularly during the wave of citizen-demanded measures to increase transparency that followed the Watergate scandal in 1974. Alaska and Anchorage’s ombudsmen were both part of that wave, with the state office of the ombudsman being established in 1975 and Anchorage following suit in 1977.
The cynics among us might be inclined to think that if Hess were to investigate every time someone in government was doing something wrong, he would be the busiest man alive. But he takes his job seriously, investigating citizen complaints and issuing reports on recommended corrective measures. He raised a flag in 2016 after complaints of improper behavior by a police chaplain, and in 2018 he recommended the city pay nearly $20,000 to a resident whose bus was improperly towed and destroyed by officers. More recently, Hess recommended municipal HR Director Niki Tshibaka be removed from the process for hiring and complaints about the library system after Tshibaka made a public show of support for library deputy director Judy Eledge, who was the subject of an investigation into alleged improper behavior and racist statements.
The state of Alaska’s ombudsman’s office has a similar — and sometimes even more consequential — role. In recent years, state ombudsman reports have implicated government officials for violating inmate rights, brought to light dysfunction and abuse at Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and revealed that corrections officials kept prisoners in jail beyond their sentences due to clerical errors.
It’s worth noting that, as with any watchdog, an ombudsman’s office is only as good as the people who staff it. Anchorage has had trouble with complaints backing up in the office before, but thankfully, the past decade has seen effective leadership in the office and efficient investigation of reported problems. In recent weeks, Hess’s office has been in the news twice — first when former municipal manager Amy Demboski reported alleged misconduct in the administration to the ombudsman, and on Thursday when Hess issued a memo revealing he had forwarded concerns to prosecutors about surveillance — and thus potential intimidation — of municipal employees talking to him and Assembly members.
This is evidence of the ombudsman’s office working as designed — as a clearinghouse for complaints of government misbehavior and as an independent advocate unwilling to sweep potential malfeasance under the rug. We should be thankful for the foresight of those who recognized the importance of an independent watchdog within government, but not under its thumb. As news continues to emerge about potential malfeasance in the mayor’s office — and there will probably be more developments — Anchorage residents should remember that the ombudsman is their representative in that office, seeking answers on their behalf. He should be a neutral and objective arbiter of mayoral conduct and, assuming he fulfills that mandate, we should trust his findings.