Anchorage Assembly takes ‘extraordinary’ measures to rein in Mayor Bronson

The Anchorage Assembly approved a trio of emergency measures Friday to rein in Mayor Dave Bronson following the swell of accusations that his administration has done everything from play loose with the city’s checkbook to spy on city employees to try to catch potential whistleblowers.

Described by Anchorage Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance as “extraordinary,” the measures put the clamps on the Bronson administration’s ability to spend without the oversight of the Anchorage Assembly and empowers the city’s ombudsman to ensure he can investigate claims without being stonewalled by the city’s HR department.

The measures each last for 60 days, giving the assembly time to continue its investigations into the administration and craft more durable, long-term solutions to fence in what appears to be an out-of-control mayor.

While there was plenty of talk about the mechanics of limiting contracts and putting strict limits on municipal credit cards, the most interesting exchanges came with Municipal Ombudsman Darrel Hess. As ombudsman, Hess’ serves as a semi-independent investigator to field whistleblower complaints and investigate the city.

In recent months, he said the Bronson administration has put up roadblocks to his investigations of hostile workplace claims that include preventing hims from being able to access personnel records that would shed some light on the nature of the complaints and whether anything was ever done with them.

“The number of complaints has grown. … From what we’re seeing, morale is pretty low in the municipality, and it’s important that employees have an avenue, have somewhere they can go where they can have their concerns looked at and hopefully addressed. I don’t believe we can provide the sufficient level of services at this point in time without access to records,” he said, later adding, “Without access to those records, I can look at it, but can I conduct an investigation? No.”

Hess has also disclosed concerns that someone in the administration has been snooping on the building’s security footage in order to try to catch potential whistleblowers and other city employees contacting Hess. Internal fractures in the administration appeared to spill into the public eye after Bronson’s deputy chief of staff, Brice Wilbanks, resigned last week. His lawyers are now coming after Hess, accusing him of violating Wilbanks’ due process rights because, apparently, they think Hess put Wilbanks in the spotlight. The only problem, of course, is that none of Hess’ communications actually name Wilbanks.

While there were some questions about whether this ongoing problem truly constitutes an emergency, Anchorage Assemblymember Meg Zalatel, who did most of the heavy lifting on the emergency ordinances, said it’s critical to take up now because there’s a serious concern that the rights of city employees could be violated, incurring much greater problems and liabilities for the city.

All measures passed with the lone opposition coming on the spending measure, which conservative Anchorage Assemblymembers Kevin Cross and Randy Sulte opposed.

Why it matters: While probably there’s a lot of people wondering why the Anchorage Assembly isn’t taking more serious actions against the mayor right now, particularly given their new mayoral removal tools approved last year, I think the assembly is taking a measured approach as they try to put out a whole lot of fires at once. This slate of ordinances should be seen more as a first step to limiting just how much damage Bronson can do while they continue their investigatory work. Any effort at outright removal better have a critical mass of political support. It’s getting there.

The measures in detail:

  • A requirement that any and all contracts above $10,000 be approved by the Anchorage Assembly addresses the “creative” contracting the administration has gotten up to, especially around sole-source contracts that appear designed to fall just under the previous $30,000 level for assembly approval. Additionally, the measure makes it more difficult for the administration to radically alter the purpose of existing contracts (as it did with the plowing contracts) and puts a $5,000 monthly limit on what are essentially municipal credit cards. There was some discussion about whether all these measures would severely impinge city business, so they added some leeway but still anticipate at least one additional assembly meeting a month for the two months the measure will be in place.
  • Another amendment would clearly state that the city’s ombudsman—a largely independent oversight position that’s supposed to be able to field internal grievances with the city—has access to some personnel files necessary to do his job. Municipal Ombudsman Darrel Hess told the assembly that he’s been prevented access to the documents by the city’s HR department, making it near-impossible to truly investigate cases. Additionally, he’s raised concerns about the possibility that the city’s staff has been snooping on the building’s security footage in order to monitor who has been going in and out of the ombudsman’s office.
  • Finally, the last piece addresses an ongoing problem with the city’s boards and commissions, allowing folks whose terms expired in October to continue serving until April or whenever the administrations gets around to filling them. Whatever reason the Bronson administration has had with filling the seats aside, the assembly said it’s starting to create significant issues with the ability of these committees to even operate as they can’t hit quorum.

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