By SUZANNE DOWNING | MUST READ ALASKA
The dysfunction in the Bronson Administration at Anchorage City Hall came to a head last week, when the mayor fired City Manager Amy Demboski, after she sent him an email detailing her concerns about contracts she believes were executed in violation of code.
The press release from the Mayor’s Office announcing Demboski’s replacement was stone cold — it just said she had been replaced by Kent Kohlhase temporarily. It gave no reason, and the Mayor’s Office handled the rest in salacious leaks to certain websites.
Demboski has been with Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration from the outset and many observers recognize that she guided him through perilous straits during his early days as mayor, when he didn’t exactly know how governments operate. Demboski had already served on the Anchorage Assembly and in the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and has a history of administration in the private sector.
She was a strong city manager. When the hostile members of the Anchorage Assembly peppered the mayor with questions he could not answer, he deferred to her. But along the way, Demboski got cross-threaded with a senior manager in the Bronson administration who has close ties with the mayor. And, from Demboski’s side of the story, she was concerned that the administration was approving contracts that were illegal because they needed to go in front of the Assembly, due to their amounts and other considerations. Demboski said that some of the contracts appeared to be for overlapping work, and she was not able to get the purchasing director’s cooperation.
Demboski left her keys on the desk, and quietly left City Hall. She had no intention of making a big scene. But then, someone high in the Bronson Administration leaked select details of the events to a gossip blog, and it appears the leaks were from someone close to the mayor — I’ll not say who, but it’s someone who has leaked a lot of information to the gossip blogger in the past. On behalf of the mayor, operatives started a whisper campaign against Demboski that was clearly intended to damage the former city manager. She decided to give interviews to the Anchorage Daily News and KTUU in order to clear her name.
Demboski admits she used foul language in describing the purchasing director, but she said that incident happened in front of a tiny circle of senior leaders, and that the subject of her scorn was not in the room. She takes responsibility for her foul mouth.
All of this points to leadership failure in the Bronson Administration. Leaks to bloggers like this show a lack of discipline among the people running the government. Who will be the next target of a leak? People working in the administration are now in a state of distrust; they know the source of these leaks. They know who to fear.
Unfortunately for the mayor, the statements that Demboski has now made to the press have given the Anchorage Assembly everything it needs to start impeachment processes — fairly or unfairly — against the mayor. The rest of their damage to him will be done in the court of public opinion.
And Demboski, through her own influence, will peel off conservative support that the mayor needs for his reelection. From her point of view, she sees the firing as retaliation for her bringing serious legal issues to the mayor’s attention. If she chooses, Demboski may have a retaliation claim for wrongful termination. The mayor will now be distracted from the running of the city while he tries to do damage control. Already, the trove of public records requests have begun, and documents are going to be made public that won’t make the Bronson Administration look good.
There aren’t any bad people working in the Bronson Administration, as far as this writer knows. There are a lot of good people. But Bronson is in trouble, and should take a look in the mirror and realize that with all the drama, the buck stops with the person he sees there.
As an aside, the other day I was wringing my hands because I had not been able to get any advance help for the state budget roll-out from the Gov. Mike Dunleavy administration. Looking back, I can now say that it’s a good sign that Dunleavy is running a tight ship, and that the leaks are few and far between to hostile forces. Let’s hope it stays that way.
As far as Bronson goes, the leaks he has been letting out are reflecting poorly on his ability to run a tight ship. He has very little time to get this situation under control and get the public on his side quickly. Can he move past the drama, and avoid ending up in court with Amy Demboski on the witness stand, during the same timeframe he is running for reelection?
This kerfuffle is not nearly as bad as the mess made by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. But Berkowitz had something that Bronson doesn’t have — a friendly press. The mainstream media knows blood when it sees it in the water, and has already begun to form the circle of sharks around Bronson.
Suzanne Downing is publisher of Must Read Alaska.