Anchorage Assembly approves measure codifying process to remove a mayor from office
By Emily Goodykoontz
The Anchorage Assembly added to city code on Tuesday a process for removing a mayor from office for a “breach of the public trust.”
It’s a move Mayor Dave Bronson has compared to a “coup” and that the Assembly had twice postponed voting on, following lengthy public testimony — largely from Bronson supporters scorning the measure — that stretched over two previous meetings.
In a 9-3 vote on Tuesday night, Assembly members passed the ordinance. The crowded chambers erupted in boos, jeers and shouts of protest, and several people chanted “cowards” at Assembly members as they left the chambers for a break.
Member Randy Sulte, representing South Anchorage, and Eagle River-Chugiak members Jamie Allard and Kevin Cross voted against the measure. All are political allies of Bronson.
Before the vote, a sometimes heated deliberation between members was punctuated with frequent disruptions from the audience. At one point, after several interruptions, a member called to adjourn the meeting, but later rescinded the motion.
Assembly members made several changes to the legislation before approving it, including raising the standard of evidence that must be met in order for a hearing officer to determine whether a breach of public trust has occurred.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant first proposed the ordinance in May, immediately eliciting vocal opposition from Bronson, who called it a “blatant attack on the office of the mayor.”
Assembly leaders have said that the code change will set clear boundaries on the mayor’s power and fulfill a section of the city’s charter that states the Assembly “shall” establish removal processes for elected officials.
Many of the mayor’s supporters see the measure as a threat to Bronson and a violation of the separation of powers, and the mayor issued calls for residents to attend previous Assembly meetings in a show of opposition.
Bronson, during his initial comments on Tuesday, said the ordinance is “clearly a partisan effort to attack the executive branch because this Assembly doesn’t agree with my administration’s policies.”
Constant has said that while some of the mayor’s actions prompted him to draft the measure, he doesn’t plan to try to use it against Bronson over the mayor’s past actions. Constant has said he believes Bronson has ignored city code in a “substantive way” since the mayor took office last July.
Previously, Anchorage mayors could only be removed through recall, aside from regular elections. The new city code does not affect the public’s ability to recall a mayor, but adds a process for the Assembly or municipal board of ethics to begin removal proceedings.
Similar processes already exist in city code for removing members of the Assembly and school board. The ordinance also adds a similar removal process for officials elected to service area boards, along with specific steps for removing a mayor, for a breach of the public trust.
Some members contested the idea that their support of the measure is a direct response to Bronson.
“I do not believe that laws should be drafted with regard to one individual or in response to an individual’s conduct,” Assembly member Meg Zaletel said. “I think what this does is, it provides equitable remedies with regard to all elected officials. These provisions already exist for the removal of school board members and Assembly members and others who serve on boards and commissions. …This isn’t about one body having some power over another body.”
Before members voted on the measure, Allard called on members to reopen public testimony, but her motion failed 3-9, and many in the crowd burst out in shouts of protest.
Allard said that newly elected Assembly member Daniel Volland should have a chance to hear the opinions of the public. Volland won a June special election for the recently added 12th Assembly seat and was sworn into office Tuesday night, earlier in the meeting.
The ordinance lists 12 actions that would constitute a breach of public trust, such as “failure to faithfully execute the directives of a duly enacted ordinance” and a “substantial breach of a statutory, code or charter-imposed duty.”
The process to remove a mayor would begin by the Assembly holding a majority vote on alleged grounds for removal. Those grounds would then be reviewed for legal sufficiency by the municipal attorney or a third-party attorney hired by the Assembly. If found sufficient, the mayor could then choose a legal representative to defend against the accusations. An agreed-upon officer would conduct a hearing, evaluate any evidence and make a recommendation to the Assembly. The Assembly would then vote on removal, needing a two-thirds majority to unseat a mayor.
The members added language to the ordinance’s introduction, comparing the code to removal processes that exist in other levels of government, such as the U.S. Congress process to impeach and remove the president and the Alaska Legislature’s ability to impeach and remove a governor.
South Anchorage member Sulte, who voted against the measure, challenged those comparisons.
“I think we’re stepping across a dangerous line here,” he said.
Impeachment of a president is meant to be difficult; one part of Congress proposes the impeachment or removal and the other part tries the case, he said.
“In this case, the Assembly is bringing forward the action. The Assembly can vote on that action,” he said. “And then, unlike state or federal, where there’s an elected official — lieutenant governor, or vice president — that would then take the place of that removed official, in this case, the Assembly would then put forward the replacement mayor.”
(When a mayor’s seat is vacated, the chair of the Assembly serves as acting mayor until a successor is elected during a special or regular election and takes office.)
The Assembly tweaked language in the ordinance to raise the standard of proof for a breach of public trust to “clear and convincing evidence,” rather than a “preponderance of evidence,” for the hearing officer considering the allegations.
“To sum it up, clear and convincing evidence is a higher evidentiary burden; it is harder to make that case for removal,” said Bronson’s newly appointed municipal attorney, Mario Bird.
Another change removed “official oppression” from the list of actions constituting a breach of public trust, bringing the number down from 13 to 12.
The Assembly also approved a change that requires the members “to submit specific written findings for the record showing good cause in the event that the assembly intends to reject the hearing officer’s recommendation,” according to the amendment.
During deliberation preceding the vote, while Assembly member Zaletel was speaking, people in the chambers interrupted several times with jeers and shouts, and she called to adjourn the meeting.
“The discourse in this chamber is really quite shocking,” she said. About a minute later, she rescinded the motion.
The conservative mayor and the moderate-to-liberal leaning Assembly majority have clashed over multiple issues since he took office, including conflict over who has the ultimate authority over city spending, acrid disagreements over the city’s homeless response and power struggles over other issues.