Fed-up Barrow residents have started a campaign to recall embattled North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower, saying her misconduct in office justifies her removal. They filed an application for a recall petition Nov. 5 and on Monday received petition booklets to collect signatures.
Organizers listed three reasons to oust the mayor, including two examples of misuse of public funds benefiting her family, as well as campaign finance violations from her 2014 re-election effort.
One of the organizers, Dora Arey, said a group of 18 residents began meeting a few months ago after seeing news reports about the mayor's conduct and questionable spending of public funds.
"We made a decision to go ahead with this," said Arey, a lifelong Barrow resident and wife of a whaling captain. "Because we are all residents of the North Slope and we are all concerned."
Brower responded to the recall effort in a statement emailed Thursday evening.
"While I am disappointed in this development, I respect the political process," she said.
Some of the public money benefited Brower's daughters and grandchildren, borough records made public earlier this year show. For instance, the North Slope Borough paid $8,400 to send five of her grandchildren to a basketball camp in California in 2014 and spent tens of thousands on cakes and handmade fur crafts and clothing bought from two of her adult daughters over several years.
One of the daughters, Mary Jo Olemaun, is married to Forrest "Deano" Olemaun, the borough assembly president who was trounced in a runoff election this week.
The recall petition lists three grounds:
1. Using $8,405.20 in public funds to send her grandchildren to the Michael Jordan Flight School basketball camp in Santa Barbara, California. Olemaun, in a letter to her mother seeking the funds, called it a "once in a lifetime event."
2. Using $7,000 in public funds to buy two sealskin vests from Olemaun. The vests were given to Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who returned them after disclosures that they were bought from the mayor's daughter.
3. "Substantial and ongoing violations" of state campaign laws, as documented by the Alaska Public Offices Commission. APOC in September fined her more than $34,000 for failing to file required campaign disclosure reports for her 2014 campaign. She not only ignored multiple requests by APOC staff for the records, but also failed to comply with a subpoena to produce them, APOC found in ordering the fine.
"It's a black eye not only to the North Slope but also to the whole state of Alaska," said Roy Ahmaogak, one of the 18 original recall sponsors. His uncle, five-time borough Mayor George Ahmaogak, was twice defeated by Brower.
The recall group is not pushing anyone in particular to replace Brower, Arey said.
"We are just taking it one step at a time," she said.
If the recall effort is successful, the borough assembly will appoint a temporary replacement under the borough charter.
Organizers must collect at least 492 signatures of registered North Slope Borough voters by Jan. 8, according to borough clerk Sheila Burke. That represents 25 percent of the votes cast in the 2014 election for mayor.
Ahmaogak said he collected 40 signatures in four hours going door to door. Residents, including another former mayor, Edward Itta, told him they appreciated a recall effort is underway.
"We feel strongly that our public leaders (should) be accountable and serve our borough with integrity," Arey said in a statement.
Voters are reaching out to sign the petition, Arey said. "They are actually looking for us."
The number of sponsors, who can collect signatures, is growing, she said.
Arey also has registered with APOC, which will allow the new group People for Responsible Government to raise and spend money for the recall campaign.
If the recall petition is turned in with enough verified signatures, the borough clerk submits it to the assembly. An election then would be scheduled within a window of 45 to 75 days after the submission, under a timeline in state law.
In Alaska, efforts to oust elected officials have rarely resulted in recall elections. Officials sometimes resign before facing the voters in a recall, the grounds are ruled insufficient, or organizers can't fulfill all the requirements.
"There's a lot of work involved," said Kathie Wasserman, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League.
But in 2010, Nome voters recalled two school board members in an election that targeted the entire board for early removal.
Brower was first elected mayor in 2011 and won a second three-year term in 2014. She won't be eligible to run again in 2017 because of term limits.
In her statement Thursday, the mayor said she has accomplished much in four years, including opening two child care centers, securing the first funding for public housing in nearly two decades and creating a department of Inupiaq history, language and culture.
Work toward bettering the lives of people on the North Slope will continue, she said. "While I understand the petition process will be ongoing, my administration will not be distracted!"