Dave Bronson began serving as Anchorage mayor last July after a razor-thin victory. His win was fueled by a large public backlash to pandemic-related shutdowns and a scandal-plagued exit from the previous elected mayor, Ethan Berkowitz.
In the year since, public discourse in the city has been fraught, with members of the public appropriating the Star of David to protest mask mandates, riotous Assembly meetings where arrests have become commonplace and growing concerns for houseless residents as the city’s mass shelter shuttered.
Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early spoke with Bronson last week about his first year in public office, and his future goals for addressing homelessness and navigating a stark divide with the local Assembly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mayor Dave Bronson: Well, I think at the end of the day, early on, we ended, or compelled the Assembly to end, the COVID restrictions. That’s what was really important, because people say, ‘COVID did this to us, and COVID did that to us.’ And certainly it did, to a degree, but to a relatively small degree. What really hurt us was the COVID shutdowns. And we could see early on that the restrictions that were put on really didn’t help with the spread of COVID. The notion that a mask that you would carry around in your pocket or hang on your mirror somehow is going to stop some great contagion simply doesn’t work that way. Now, if you’re a professional, and you’ve trained in PPE, and you’re wearing an N95, and you don’t ever touch it, yeah, certainly that could work, but that just didn’t happen. So I think getting the city back to business, back to normal is a really good thing.
Wesley Early: Sure. And I’m happy you brought up the Assembly because that leads into what I wanted to ask next. I think there’s a public understanding that it’s pretty toxic between you and the Assembly. How would you characterize it? The relationship?
DB: Well, I get that. That viewpoint is out there, and it’s not entirely untrue. But the thing is, first I look at what we do, how we work together. On things like municipal issues, like maintenance and plowing streets and maintaining streets, we’re actually… we work together probably 70 or 80% of the time on those kinds of things. Where we differ oftentimes is the spending. But where it really comes to a focus is it’s kind of a conflict of how we run government. The charter is quite clear on who runs the city — the mayor runs the city through the municipal manager. And it seems like to me, in the last several years, the Assembly has been allowed to get out of their lane by the previous two administrations, and they’ve been very proactive in managing. And if that works for them then, that’s fine. It doesn’t work for us, we’re not going to allow that anymore. And we’re winding that down.
WE: I’d like to move on to accountability. There have been concerns from both the Assembly and community councils that there’s a lack of transparency and that they’ve had trouble getting information and reports. One example I can think of is you kind of coordinated this busing of people from the Sullivan to the Centennial Park campground without really giving much notice to the Assembly or the local community council. You recently put out an op-ed that said you’re being accountable with the public. I’m wondering, how is that lack of communication being accountable?
DB: Well, you construe it as the lack of communication. And quite frankly, I think they and you are wrong in that. This is the management of the city. I manage the police department, I manage the fire department. And this goes back to what we talked about a few minutes ago, which was (the Assembly’s) end at the very granular level on the management of the city. They’ve been allowed to be in that realm, in that space for six years. I’m not allowing that. That’s not how you run a city. Again, I come back to that. The Sullivan Arena, we communicated quite clearly for many months that it was going to have to close on July 1 because of the funding and our FEMA reimbursement. Again, we’re coming back to property taxes. I can’t make that worse. I couldn’t keep it going because the tax bill would get too extraordinarily high for the property tax owner. So they have this notion that I have to notify them of everything. I don’t. I mean, what’s next? They don’t like how I’m plowing the streets in November and I have to notify them that I’ve changed the snow plowing mechanism. We’ve got the A’s and the B’s and and you know, we go back and forth so everybody gets their snow removal within 24-72 hours. I mean, at what level does that stop? And I manage the city. That’s what I do. And it never occurred to me that I would have to tell them how I’m going to close down the Sullivan.
I told them I was going to close down the Sullivan because it had to be closed down. And I didn’t order anyone to go into Centennial Park. We had 56 people that voluntarily went to Centennial Park from Sullivan Arena. That’s their choice. Remember, I can’t arrest people for being homeless. I don’t want to be able to do that. I provide opportunities and all I did was provide a campground so you don’t have to pay the daily fee. That’s all this is. And all of a sudden, now I’m hearing from the Assembly, they want to set up another government program out there. That isn’t what that was ever going to be. That’s not what it’s going to be. It is a campground, they just get to stay there for free. And I think we’ve still got three or four people there that have motorhomes that are in there because they made reservations, and they’re not what you would call homeless. This was a mitigation for a forest fire threat. And this was a mitigation. Most of those people came from Davis Park [a Mountain View park that was the site of an unsanctioned encampment]. That’s what that is. And unfortunately, the truth isn’t getting out there. And that’s what happens. We have this confusion. The media is, quite frankly, getting it wrong.
WE: Well you’ve said several times that the Centennial campground isn’t a part of the city’s homelessness plan. You’ve said it’s not a homeless camp. But you mentioned you did waive camping fees there. People were bussed using municipal resources to get there. And people from the Parks department are providing security there. I don’t understand how that’s not a city homelessness response. All of these city resources are being directed that weren’t there, like two months ago.
DB: Oh, well, again, it’s a replacement for Davis Park. We never had busing there, we never had anything there. All we had was a great big forest fire threat. And this isn’t a homeless response. It’s being managed by Parks and Rec. Or it was until yesterday. Salvation Army now has stepped up, at no cost to the city, and is taking over the coordination efforts there. And I have told providers, I’ve told board members from ACEH (Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness), if you want to come into that camp and provide help, feel free. They know this. And they say well, ‘What is it? Where’s the program? Where’s the government program?’ I say, ‘There is no government program, there’s not going to be a government program.’ And guess what? Salvation Army came in, at no cost. It took them awhile, took about a week to get the program done. And we’ve been dealing with the Salvation Army for a few weeks on this. Provide us a plan if you want to step up and help out like anyone else. And they said yes. They finally came to a conclusion, they can do the coordination, and they’re doing it.
We have a problem in our thinking that everything it seems like has to turn into a government program. I provided a space and whomever wants to come in and provide services in that space, they can do that. But at the end of the day, the trouble is… and you have to keep in mind, we have always provided security at that campground. Always. So the notion that we did something different is simply untrue. And again if we would just start telling the truth here, if the media would actually… you get to understand last week, I spent a night in the camp, I slept there. I’m there usually two times a day. I do a morning run and an evening run. I left the Assembly last week early because I went straight to Centennial camp. And it was my way of keeping in touch with this. And we have this narrative put forth by some people, mostly on the Assembly, that this is a humanitarian crisis. That is an abject lie. It is not true. That is a very well-run camp. It has been run by Parks and Rec, and the campground will continue to be run by them. But the coordination of services will be done by the Salvation Army.
WE: Well, whether it’s a crisis or not, I think comes to your definition of the word crisis. But you know, there’s been a death there. Police say they had to tase an individual was starting a fight. The Anchorage Daily News just reported dozens of 911 calls have been made about the campground since those fees were waived. Not to mention the fact that there were bears rifling through tents and four of them ended up getting killed. Do you genuinely believe that the campground is safe?
Editor’s note: The evening after this interview was conducted, Anchorage Police exchanged gunfire with a man at Centennial, resulting in the man and one officer being hospitalized. The man had a felony warrant. In response, Bronson wrote, “It’s unfortunate that APD found him at Centennial but I thank God that the officer who was shot is expected to make a full recovery and the suspect was apprehended.”
DB: The campground is safe compared to what? Safe compared to my house where I go home in a nice house, or you to a nice home? No it’s not that safe.
WE: Well, compared to the Sullivan, which was a resource?
DB: Yes, it’s better than the Sullivan.
WE: You think it’s safer as well?
DB: Yes, it’s safer than the Sullivan and it’s certainly better. And again, you’re comparing it to the Sullivan. Because only 56 of the 200 people came from the Sullivan. The rest of them come from Davis Park and from Chester Creek. My chief of staff the day before yesterday walked all of Chester Creek. All of it. Spent the whole day. She counted 13 tents. So we know now, because it was quite populated, that a lot of the people, or we suspect clearly, that a lot of those people came from Chester Creek and went to a campground. When I go there, I’m routinely approached by people in the camp that say ‘Thank you for standing this up.’ This is a big improvement over Davis Park. We are providing hot and cold running water. We’re providing showers. We’re providing toilet paper. We’re providing a campsite, volunteer groups came in and actually provided tents. So this is a vast improvement. We’ve got a place now where we’ve got everyone centralized where we can see everyone. When I walked Davis Park, I saw the problem. You want to talk about a humanitarian crisis? That was it.
WE: Right. But you just said you stood it up. So I guess I’m still kind of curious as to how it’s not a city program. But if it’s not, if Centennial Park isn’t a city homeless response, what is the city doing to address homelessness right now?
DB: Well, how much time we got? That’s a big project. Let’s bring ACEH (Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness) in here, who, by the way, I think in a lot of areas is doing a fantastic job, setting up the Sockeye Inn, the Guest House. We’re working on that. We’ve had problems with the funding at the Guest House because there’s funds we can and cannot use. And we’re working our way through that.
But the problem we have, and I phrase it to people like this: If you drove around town, you didn’t see any homeless, the average citizen if they didn’t see any homeless, they’d say we solved it. Well, once you get into this for five minutes, you understand that isn’t… that doesn’t solve the problem. It solves the visible problem, obviously, but it doesn’t solve the problem. We’ve got people that are couchsurfing, we got people that are living in their cars. That doesn’t solve that. And we’ve got to look at the, I think the last PIT (Place in Time) count was 3,000 people that are essentially homeless in one degree or another. Some of them have problematic behavior based on drug, alcohol and psychiatric problems. And we need to deal with them specifically. This notion that you can just take everyone and throw them into an apartment or a hotel room somewhere is folly. Many of them you can, but some of them, you put them in and we’re learning this — I think, I got the bill, it was a little over $9,900 for damage to the Aviator in the month of February. And the city is paying for that. And that’s because some of these people are so psychiatrically or emotionally challenged, they’ll literally tear the plumbing off the wall. Well, those people need a different hand. They need a different kind of support. And I’m for that. And so the notion that you can just put people in housing first and that solves the problem… that’s not the issue. It’s got to be treatment first.
WE: And you’ve mentioned the navigation center.
DB: That is through the integrated homeless response.
WE: Do you have an estimation on when that will be up?
DB: We’re shortening that window a little bit. Right now the last number date I got was we can start putting people in there, if everything goes right, on October 19. But the official one I think is, don’t quote me, I think it’s November 4, and then we can put people in it as we’re still working on the entire footprint of that lot. And I think final completion is January 14 or 19. When it’s complete, complete.
WE: Is there anything being built at the site right now?
DB: No, we’re just doing very little site prep there.
WE: I guess I’m just curious if there’s currently nothing, how realistic is the fall? Is that something that could get pushed back?
DB: Well, there’s certainly processes, you know, we could be taken to court, you know, and we’ll push it back. And then again, I’ll have to pivot and, I’m going to find a way to the solution. I had a way that dealt with this very problematic, most problematic population, which is kind of what we’re dealing with at Centennial Park. I will adapt. People want me to fail on this, one way or another. I’m not going to fail. I will just keep adapting to whatever threat presents itself, in the interest of these people that need shelter, first. You got to have shelter, you gotta keep — get them warm, get them dry, get them under a hot shower, and then start navigating them. And that’s a very important concept. I think (Assembly member and ACEH Executive Director) Meg Zaletel and I, we agree on that. You got to get them in front of case managers. And then we find out where they gotta go. It’s like we’re building a hospital for homelessness. And for people, real people. The nav center is simply the emergency room. You know, the therapy, we got the orthopedic department, we got surgery, we’ve got the admin department — those are all different things we’ve got to know. But without an emergency room, you really don’t have a hospital. And that’s all this nav center has ever been. It’s the ER. This is where you start. Some people will only be there hours, some people will be there weeks, because they’re so challenged. And I can’t, I’m not allowed by law to order people around. I can’t arrest them. No one wants to do that.
WE: And I thought you were going to talk about this earlier, but I wanted to afford you the time to talk about the port and all that’s been done over the last year. If you could walk through what you have done with the port and what you’re hoping to see. I thought you were gonna mention it as a proudest accomplishment.
DB: Well, I guess we got off on the homeless track based on the questioning. So I started campaigning, in fact I campaigned for a year on homeless being the big issue. I saw the threat for what it was. And I got into office and it took two, three weeks, and all of a sudden, I learned ‘Houston, we got a problem.’ And the problem is the port and there is no partisanship in this one at all. This isn’t a Republican or Democratic problem. This is a, I’ll be honest, it’s a political class problem. We kick this can down the street for many years — we’re at seven years, we’re at the end of the life, the engineering structural life of the port. That port feeds 90% of the people in Alaska. The 10% it doesn’t feed — those are the people in Southeast that got their own port. And this port is going to fall over. Had that last earthquake on November 30, 2018 gone seven more seconds, the engineers subsequently studied it, it would have fallen over. And if it falls over, this is the threat I want your listeners to understand here, and why the port became more important to me even than homelessness and crime and all the other important stuff that we got going on. If it falls over, at least half the state is going to have to move out of the state. You got to process that. Because the food comes over the port. Forget the building materials and all the stuff that fills the shelves at Walmart and Costco and everything else. Forget all that. Just look at the food. No food, no workers. No workers, there’s no oil pipeline workers. There’s no oil in the pipeline and there’s no food on the slope. This is cataclysmic.
I met with someone from the Biden administration here in early April in D.C. from the DOT. Actually a friend of (Transportation) Secretary (Pete) Buttegieg, and he understood it because he’s been dealing with port issues in the West Coast for many years and this is what he said, ‘Instantaneous humanitarian crisis.’ Instantaneous, you don’t build up to it. It happens. It’s done. And then what do we do? And I’ll be honest with you, not to scare people, but I don’t get to leave because I’m the guy stuck here dealing with the problem. I went out and I spent a few thousand dollars on freeze dried food. This may sound ridiculous, but I don’t get to leave and I still have to eat so I’m preparing because this isn’t ‘prepping,’ you know, I don’t do that. People want to do that, that’s their business. But I have to prepare for how my wife and I are going to feed ourselves as we spend probably two years dealing with this problem getting the port functional, so Tote and Matson and Lynden can keep delivering food. So that’s a big one. And there’s nothing more important. So the accomplishment we’ve made, last legislative session, we’ve got a $200 million commitment from the Legislature: 100 outright, 100 matching. So we get $100 million from the feds, they’ll match it. Remember, the outstanding bill to build a complete port is $1.6 billion. And we’re dealing with inflation like you can’t imagine. So we all know it’s going to be way more than $1.6 billion. But again, it’s a challenge. It’s got to be met. It’s a moving target. Thank heavens, we’ve got Matson and Tote and the other providers, the petroleum folks are keeping us going and keeping us fed every day, and my job is to make sure that keeps up.
WE: Well, Mr. Mayor, we’ve gone longer than you said you would be here and I appreciate that. Thank you so much for joining us today as we commemorate your one year in office.
DB: Alright. Thank you very much for the opportunity. Appreciate it.