An attempt to change municipal policy when the outcome of Anchorage’s election was clear; collaboration with partisan actors looking to challenge the result; stony silence from the mayor: Every twist in the election fiasco attempted by Anchorage municipal Information Technology Director Marc Dahl and Sami Graham has made the situation stink worse and raised more questions about what happened and who was involved. The misdeeds centered around a policy that appears to have been improperly created for the specific purpose of generating a pretext to challenge April’s municipal election results. What we know is bad enough: Dahl collaborated with Mayor Dave Bronson’s former chief of staff Graham, aiding her long-shot bid to sow doubt about election security. But there are plenty of questions that deserve a public explanation — and Anchorage residents better get one soon.
Who was involved?
Ombudsman Darrel Hess’s investigation found that Dahl had contact with both Graham and John Henry, an election observer and Bronson ally. What has been established is that Dahl tipped the pair to the existence of a USB drive security policy he had attempted to institute by fiat a week after the election, which Graham and Henry used verbatim in an election complaint they filed before more than a handful of people had been informed of the policy’s existence. But it isn’t clear whether Graham and Henry were the only ones who were privy to the security-policy gambit.
What is the administration hiding?
Municipal attorneys have redacted wholesale the contents of emails between administration figures about the policy, citing the “deliberative process” exception to public records disclosure laws. But that exception exists to protect the ability of the executive branch to share candid feedback in developing policy, not to obscure the public’s right to know who was involved in a situation where the ombudsman says he “reasonably believes that there may have been a violation of state election statutes.” The deliberative process exception is meant to make it easier for policymakers to brainstorm ideas; it’s not a shield for what at worst may be an illegal attempt to change the outcome of a duly conducted election. The harder the administration fights to keep the public in the dark about its discussions about the policy, the more Anchorage residents have reason to ask why.
Why hasn’t Mayor Bronson spoken about the incident?
For a mayor who has been vocal about his the-buck-stops-here attitude, Bronson has been mum about what he knew (or didn’t) about the policy and the collaboration between Dahl and Graham. He hasn’t even bothered to trot out his well-worn “my lawyers told me not to say anything” excuse — rather, it’s just been a telling silence. Others in the administration have been more forthcoming: Municipal Manager Kent Kohlhase told the Assembly that when he learned about the situation, he went to Anchorage Police Department leaders and told them of his concerns that laws might have been broken. Why hasn’t the mayor explained how he came to know about the incident and what he did in response, given that Hess and Kohlhase seem to have immediately grasped the severity of Dahl’s actions? Bronson’s continued silence on the matter can only serve to undermine the public’s trust that he wasn’t personally involved or aware of the situation beforehand.
When will the administration take action on Dahl?
In addition to blacking out information that could make it clear who was involved in the policy’s creation and who knew about Dahl’s plan to use it to help Graham undermine the election, Bronson and his administration have been silent on Dahl’s future. Although Bronson’s spokespeople have — when pressed — revealed that Dahl is on administrative leave, they have refused to answer whether that leave is paid or unpaid, and the administration didn’t even respond to the first and strongest recommendation of Ombudsman Hess’s investigation — that Dahl be terminated for what he did. Acting to undermine the outcome of a fairly conducted election is one of the most serious offenses imaginable for a public servant acting in his official capacity, and Hess was right to make such a recommendation; it’s baffling that the administration hasn’t taken Dahl’s misconduct more seriously. One is left to ask: Why does the mayor appear to be protecting Dahl?
Can Anchorage residents trust their government to do the right thing?
Ultimately, the worst part about Dahl’s actions and the many unanswered questions that remain is that it’s not just an issue that came and went with this year’s election. Mayor Bronson is also Candidate Bronson — his term is nearly up and he will be on the ballot again in April; Anchorage voters need to have faith that the kind of shenanigans perpetrated after last year’s election won’t reoccur. As it stands, it’s hard to be confident that the mayor or his allies won’t try to engineer an election challenge again if the results don’t go their way, given Bronson’s history of questioning election integrity and the lack of action or answers in the wake of the Dahl fiasco. The mayor needs to make a full accounting of what happened, who knew about it and how we can be confident it won’t happen again, for not only his own sake but also that of our democracy.