An Alaska Superior Court judge on Thursday issued a split decision in an appeal from the Anchorage Assembly, which called on the court to make public two documents in an internal city investigation into its hiring of a former health department director.
In the decision, Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi said that one document is protected under attorney-client privilege — a September 2022 memorandum from the a city human resources deputy director to a former acting municipal attorney. The other document, a January 2023 memo, is not protected from public disclosure as city lawyers asserted, Guidi said.
Joe Gerace resigned as city health director in 2022 as an Alaska Public Media and American Public Media investigation revealed he had fabricated or exaggerated significant parts of his resume.
Mayor Dave Bronson, in February of last year, declined to make public the internal investigation documents on Gerace after Assembly leaders issued subpoenas.
Bronson and then-Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen argued that the documents were protected as personnel records and that releasing them would be against city code. They also said it would violate employees’ constitutionally protected privacy rights.
The Assembly then authorized its attorneys to ask the court to compel the administration to publicly release the reports.
At the time, Assembly leaders were frustrated — they’d reviewed the January 2023 report in a closed-door session with former Human Resources director Niki Tshibaka, and said it revealed little new information or details that weren’t already public.
Guidi ruled that report does not involve information normally protected, like payroll, medical files, or equal rights commission files. And releasing it also doesn’t constitute an invasion of privacy, he said.
“The mere fact that information may be highly embarrassing does not render it private,” Guidi said in the decision.
There is no question that the investigation could yield information highly embarrassing to Gerace and to the public officials responsible for vetting him, he said.
“But, as embarrassing as it may be, from the standpoint of the citizens’ right to know how their government is functioning, the result of the Municipality’s investigation would be highly informative,” Guidi said.
However, the September report, “in its totality, constitutes a confidential attorney-client communication protected by the attorney-client privilege,” he said.
It’s unclear when or if the Bronson administration or the court will release the January report. The administration and the Assembly have 10 days to file a motion for reconsideration of the judge’s decision.
Whether the court will order that either record must be unsealed depends on the outcome of any reconsideration motion or further appeal, Guidi said.
Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, in a statement Thursday evening, lauded the court’s decision and called for Bronson to immediately release both records. Bronson could choose to waive the attorney-client privilege of the September memo, he said.
”After a year of judicial process to bring the truth to light, today, the Court ruled to affirm what the Assembly has asserted all along: public leaders are accountable to the public,” Constant said.
Veronica Hoxie, spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, declined to answer questions about the court decision. The administration is still reviewing the court’s decision and “is unable to provide responses” to questions at this time, she said.
This story originally appeared in the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.