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North Slope Borough mayoral recall campaign heats up ahead of April 5 vote

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 20, 2016

On one side, a group frustrated by the North Slope Borough's top official is drawing crowds, putting up signs and raising money with sales of cakes and other food including cherished aluutagaaq, a stew of caribou and gravy, in an effort to oust her.

On the other side, Mayor Charlotte Brower is banking on her record to ensure her political survival. She has turned to Facebook with posts aiming to portray her as a traditional Inupiaq woman with the skills and commitment to lead her people. And in a statement that will appear on the ballot, Brower makes some startling accusations, including that records from her office leading to the recall were stolen.

The result will show itself after the borough's April 5 special election, when voters in the far North will decide whether to recall Brower midway through her second term.

Last year, she was caught in the glare of unwelcome publicity in a place that can seem closed off to the world. News reports disclosed that since her first election in 2011, her office had spent more than $800,000 of public money in gifts to local groups, sports teams and individuals -- including for members of her own family.

"We just believe we need a better government that will meet all of our needs, not just the Brower family needs," said Beverly Hugo, one of the recall leaders.

The ballot will list reasons for a recall compiled by the group behind the effort as well as the mayor's detailed rebuttal.

"All mayors have made donations to benefit our community and our youth," Brower says in the ballot statement.

Brower blames "irresponsible staff" for problem spending and says their purchasing authority was removed. Ned Nelson, a borough employee and lifelong Barrow resident who works after hours as her campaign manager, says she did not do wrong, but accepts responsibility for actions of staff members.

Brower has tried to address the issues, her team says. She requested an investigation of the spending. She changed procedures to require competitive bidding for purchases of services or goods from borough employees and family of employees. She hired a former borough attorney to revamp the code of ethics and nepotism rules, Nelson said in an email. The borough spent tens of thousands of dollars on cakes and pies bought from one of her daughters.

Multiple Browers on NSB payroll

Borough residents said they began hearing concerns about the spending last year during public radio station KBRW broadcasts of assembly meetings.

The ballot proposition includes two examples of questioned borough spending: $8,405 to send five of her grandchildren to basketball camp at the Michael Jordan Flight School in Santa Barbara, California, and $7,000 paid to a grown daughter for two bearded sealskin vests that were then given to Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. The two later returned the vests made by Mary Jo Olemaun, one of Brower's daughters.

"We have lot of young basketball players in the villages and here in Barrow that would certainly like to go get special training from if not a pro, at least somebody that knows how to play basketball," said Rex Okakok Sr., a retired borough employee and a Barrow elder with the recall group.

The ballot proposition also points to "substantial and ongoing violations" of state campaign law, including Brower's failure to provide campaign records to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. APOC faulted her for a "glaring lack of cooperation." She paid the $34,970 fine in February, months after it was due.

Those fed up with Brower say their discontent goes beyond those examples to her administration's employment of at least three of her children in top jobs -- April Brower, director of borough search and rescue, Shannon Esparza, deputy director of the Fire Department, and Frederick Brower, the borough's risk manager.

"We just believe that our administration is too top-heavy on nepotism and cronyism," Hugo said.

Brower's relatives were working for the borough before she became mayor, but "some of them received new titles and promotions. This happens when you've worked for the borough as long as some of them have," said David Fauske, an adviser to the mayor who also is part of the group trying to keep Brower in office.

Brower was first elected in 2011 and is midway through her second term. If voters favor recall, a special election would be held within 60 days of the election's certification to pick a replacement. The assembly would name an acting mayor until that occurs.

Brower, in her official response for the North Slope Borough ballot, said the donation for basketball camp was too high and money was returned, but otherwise defends her actions.

"This election is not about APOC, basketball camps, or seal skin vests," her statement says. "This election is about whether you want private contractors to control NSB. A NO VOTE leaves NSB in control."

She suggests that her office was pressured to fund Barrow projects rather than those for villages, but in her limited space on the ballot, doesn't elaborate.

State law allows a statement of up to 200 words by the person being targeted, and Brower used every one. A ballot also must contain the grounds for recall, as stated on the petitions used to gather signatures in support of a vote.

"My administration refused to spend public money, your money, for private profit," Brower's statement said.

The mayor also contends that "this recall started with the theft of records from the Mayor's Office. That was unnecessary, as we had nothing to hide."

Mayor points to record

The mayor's statement, distributed on an election notice and on sample ballots, didn't sit well with members of the opposition group, People for Responsible Government, Hugo said.

"House of lies, that's what it is. It's going to fall. No more. We are sick of that," she said.

Over several weekends, the recall group has held voter registration drives, food sales and cake walks at the Barrow teen center. Meals of caribou stew, rice, potato salad and a doughnut went for $15 and everything sold out.

As of March 4, the group had raised more than $3,300 from individual donations and food sales. They bought bright-red "Vote Yes for Recall" signs and plan a mailer encouraging people to vote, said Hugo, a former physician's assistant turned school teacher. She took a couple of grandsons to one of the March events.

"I went there with $100 and by the end of 5 o'clock, I was broke. I bought about eight cakes and several precious whale oil jars," Hugo said.

Brower is from Selawik, a village near Kotzebue in the Northwest Arctic, and some resent her rise to power in a whaling community where whaling captains -- almost all of whom are men -- often become political leaders.

"She tries to be one of our own but she was not born and raised here, in the North Slope," said Hugo, whose family has been in Barrow for generations. Inupiaq values say to make the community better for all, not just one's own family, she said. "We women, we stand and back up our men who are of integrity and good leadership, like a good whaling crew."

Brower, whose husband is a whaler, wants voters to think about what she's accomplished in just four years. The borough established a $20 million fund to build affordable housing. It opened child care centers in Barrow and Nuiqsut that now serve families on a sliding fee basis and wants the same for the region's six other villages.

The group backing Brower includes several North Slope Borough employees, but Nelson, deputy director of the borough's capital improvement program, said he is the only one "actively involved."

Only a single person contributed money to the pro-Bower effort as of March 4, the closing date of the first campaign disclosure report. That was Sam Kito Jr., the North Slope Borough's $5,000-a-month lobbyist. He gave $500, about what it cost the Friends of Charlotte Brower "Vote No" group to set up its Facebook page.

The opposition says Brower is using her position as mayor to campaign. She recently flew on a borough chartered flight to Point Lay, where she presented regional tournament T-shirts to basketball players.

The Anaktuvuk Pass boys' team put the shirts away before their game, then had to interrupt their pregame warmup to fetch them for a picture with the mayor, said the coach, Lillian Stone, who is staying out of the politics but found the photo-op disruptive.

The North Slope Borough's home page soon featured the picture of Brower posing with a sea of young players.

John Boyle, the borough's director of government affairs, said the mayor and borough staff traveled to Point Lay to meet with local leaders on the housing shortage and drug issues.

Confidential investigation

On the Facebook campaign page, Brower promotes her work as mayor, her family and Inupiaq traditions.

She's shown with a granddaughter holding fresh fish and a grandson with "a whale caught by the family crew." In another picture, she is sitting on the floor with other women sewing fur for a parka.

The borough has been tarnished by accusations of exploitation and greed before. Her husband, Eugene Brower, served as mayor in the 1980s before pleading guilty to tax evasion in a major corruption scandal that sent two of his key advisers to prison.

In 2011, Charlotte Brower beat George Ahmaogak, a former five-term mayor who instigated the 1984 investigation of Eugene Brower, by just 62 votes. Twelve days before the 2011 election, Ahmaogak's wife, Maggie Ahmaogak was indicted herself on charges of embezzling hundreds of thousands from her employer, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. She pleaded guilty, was ordered to pay $393,000 in restitution and served about three years before her release last year on Christmas Eve.

The North Slope Borough, with hefty property taxes on oil properties including the trans-Alaska pipeline, has an annual budget of almost $404 million for an area the size of Oregon that is home to fewer than 10,000 people. Brower's current salary is $236,000 a year, a $13,500 boost over last year.

Other local governments in Alaska sometimes provide support for individuals headed to spelling bees or for sports teams to travel but the amounts are usually small, said Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.

In July, Brower requested the assembly seek an outside investigation of the spending, which it did.

"This is real transparency and responsible government," she said in her ballot statement.

Yet the investigation has never been made public.

Borough attorney Teresa Bowen said that under borough code, investigations must be kept confidential unless a formal hearing takes place.

"There has been no formal hearing, so the investigation remains confidential under law," she said in an email.

It is up to the assembly not the mayor, to wrap that up, Nelson said in an email.

The borough's independent auditor, KPMG, examined that investigation during its annual audit and not only found no issues with it, but issued the first clean audit in more than a decade, Brower said earlier this month in a written statement.

Her backers held their first "Vote No" campaign event Friday evening at Ipalook Elementary School with food and door prizes.

The other side isn't letting up.

"We're getting a good momentum going," Hugo said.

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