Anchorage Assembly chair: ‘The mayor’s administration is on fire. It’s burning.’ 

Dave Bronson at an Assembly meeting
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson at a special Assembly meeting on Oct. 14, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly voted on Tuesday to sue the administration of Mayor Dave Bronson to force the release of documents related to former Health Director Joe Gerace. 

It’s the latest development in one widening scandal that began last August, as Alaska Public Media and American Public Media exposed that Gerace had fabricated parts of his resume, including his military background and professional qualifications. He resigned.

The move to sue comes amid a litany of dysfunction in the Bronson administration that includes a procession of executives resigning or being fired, toxic workplace allegations, misuse of city funds and illegal overreaches of executive power.

“The mayor’s administration is on fire. It’s burning,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said Tuesday, in a wind up to ask Bronson again to publicly address issues at City Hall.

The Assembly has for months demanded answers from Bronson’s administration about how Gerace’s lies went undetected. At Tuesday night’s meeting, several Assembly members said they were embarrassed at the state of things — even the mayor’s Chief of Staff Adam Trombley said he sympathized with the Assembly’s trust issues with the administration. 

“I do understand the distrust of an executive branch. Trust me, I’ve been in your position,” the former Anchorage Assembly member said, before pleading with the Assembly to have faith in him on a separate matter. 

While Bronson is a conservative and the Assembly members are mostly progressives, the Assembly’s criticism on Tuesday night was focused on competence, and waning faith in the mayor’s leadership. 

Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia described Bronson’s administration as “crumbling.” And then he asked the mayor: “Have you seriously considered resigning?”

“I have not considered resigning in any way, in any fashion whatsoever,” Bronson replied. 

Bronson has been mum about the string of city executives leaving his administration and the Gerace investigation. He said they’re personnel matters that can’t be publicly discussed, per legal advice.

Soon after Gerace resigned in August, Bronson announced there would be an “in-depth and thorough investigation” into his hiring. After months of back and forth between the Assembly and the mayor’s office, nothing had been made public. Ultimately, Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen said that without a court order, releasing the relevant documents would violate employees’ constitutionally protected right to privacy.

The Assembly’s inquiry led the body to take an unprecedented step of legally compelling the testimony of the city’s HR director in closed session. HR Director Niki Tshibaka complied on Jan. 24, and was asked back for Tuesday’s meeting — but he resigned abruptly on Monday

LaFrance was uncharacteristically frazzled as she addressed the mayor on Tuesday about the row — and the wider management issues at City Hall. 

“We were promised an investigation,” LaFrance said of Gerace’s hiring. “The community was promised an investigation and we have received nothing. My husband and I decided to make Anchorage our home, we decided to raise our children here. And to see it being handled like this is so incredibly painful and so unnecessary. And yes, I am upset. Forgive me folks, but this is really hard to take, Mr. Mayor, and I don’t understand your behavior. It’s like you don’t give a hoot about our community. So I think it’s time you take the time to address us all and tell us what the heck is going on with your administration.” 

The Assembly’s leadership, with advice of their own legal counsel, said the administration can release the documents relevant to the Gerace investigation, potentially with redactions, without running afoul of privacy rights. 

Bronson said he understood LaFrance’s emotion, but didn’t speak to the substance of her comments. 

“I could order all the documents, whatever, and it — the law department will still refuse,” Bronson said. “I can order them released. It makes no difference — I don’t know, we’ve been dealing with some of these issues, Blair has, for over a year. And the answer is always going to be the same, is always going to be the same in that this is a legal issue. I don’t know how you don’t understand that.”

Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson called Bronson’s investigation a farce. She said there essentially was no investigation. 

“Here we are, yet again, wasting our time with this mayor,” she said.

Investigation aside, Assembly members again asked the mayor to publicly address the procession of executives leaving the administration, and their allegations of a toxic work environment at City Hall. Former Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, who Bronson fired, issued a scathing letter through a lawyer last month alleging numerous illegal, misogynistic and unethical acts.

RELATED: It was good to be friends with Anchorage’s mayor. Then the investigations began.

Bronson told the Assembly that he “thinks” he is prepared to hold a work session about “the issues you are reading about in the media.” 

“But again, we’re not going to talk about this matter, these HR matters, in a public forum,” Bronson said. “Past, present and future employees need to be confident that their issues, their personnel issues are not going to be spoke about in public. And that’s why I’ve remained silent. I’ve said that over and over, I’ve told the Assembly that, I’ve told the media that, and we’re going to stick with that.” 

The shadow over City Hall is affecting other business before the Assembly. For example, it was set to decide Tuesday if a fraught land deal to open up 60 acres of city-owned land in Girdwood for a new housing development could proceed. 

Assembly member Meg Zaletel asked her colleagues to postpone deciding indefinitely — not over policy differences, but because she said she’s lost faith in the administration’s ability to carry out work that is in its own interest. 

“Firsthand reports of incompetence in the mayor’s office really give me no faith that this current mayoral administration will implement this ordinance in a way that does anything meaningful,” Zaletel said. “I do not believe that Mayor Bronson will work to bring the parties together to bring this project to fruition. I have serious doubts that Mayor Bronson can even get this project off the ground.” 

She ran through staffing issues weighing on her. 

“There is currently no confirmed Heritage Land Bank director or real estate director for over a year now,” Zaletel said. “We have an acting municipal manager. We have an acting municipal attorney. We have an acting health director. The mayor is also now on his fourth chief of staff in 18 months. And as of yesterday, we have an acting human resources director.”

The Assembly voted 7-5 to postpone it indefinitely.

Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.

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