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Anchorage municipal attorney says elements of ordinance creating chief equity officer position violate city charter

Members of Anchorage Assembly, city administration continue back-and-forth on authority over the position
Clifford Armstrong, Anchorage's first chief equity officer.
Clifford Armstrong, Anchorage's first chief equity officer.(Rebecca Palsha)
Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 7:23 PM AKDT|Updated: Nov. 2, 2021 at 10:24 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In response to the Anchorage Assembly asking for Mayor Dave Bronson’s grounds for firing the city’s first chief equity officer, Anchorage’s municipal attorney has said elements of the ordinance that created the position in the first place violate the city’s charter.

Clifford Armstrong III was the city’s first chief equity officer, and was fired and replaced by Bronson early in October. Members of the Anchorage Assembly have asserted that he is not actually fired and are engaged in a back-and-forth with the city administration over the position and the separation of powers between the administration and the assembly.

In a memo sent to assembly leadership on Monday, Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt wrote that parts of the ordinance the assembly passed establishing the chief equity officer position “clearly violates the Charter and the separation of powers doctrine” because it creates “for cause” protection for the position.

The section of municipal code on the chief equity officer states that the person serving in that position “may be dismissed by the mayor only for cause shown, and only with the concurrence of a majority of the assembly.” Assembly leadership has argued that, because of this ordinance and section of code, Armstrong’s firing is not valid.

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance and Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant wrote in a letter to Bronson that Armstrong “continues to be employed until there is a showing of cause for his dismissal, communicated to the Assembly, and by majority vote the body concurs with the dismissal.”

The assembly members wrote that they were advised by the assembly’s legal counsel that the firing is not legally complete. The asked Bronson to forward his grounds for cause for firing Armstrong to the assembly by Oct. 27.

In his Monday response, Bergt reiterated what the administration has said several times, that the chief equity officer serves at the pleasure of a mayor as an executive mayoral appointee.

“The Chief Equity Officer serves at the pleasure of the mayor and, like other at will mayoral executive appointees, s/he can be dismissed for any reason or for no reason at all,” the memo states. “The ordinance should be amended to reflect the same.”

Bergt’s memo references the section of Anchorage city charter that states “Persons appointed by the mayor serve at the pleasure of the mayor.”

He wrote in the memo that, while the city charter limits the mayor’s executive power to appoint people to executive positions by requiring assembly confirmation, it doesn’t place the same limitation on the mayor’s power to remove people.

“Because the Charter allows the Assembly a role in the appointment process, but omits any language granting the Assembly authority over the removal process, it should be understood as the equivalent of an express exclusion of such a power,” Bergt wrote. “The Assembly cannot read into the Charter what the Charter excludes by omission.”

The memo states that the “for cause” protection of an executive appointee included in the ordinance that established the chief equity officer position “usurps the mayor’s executive function.”

“Attempts to insulate mayoral executive appointees with ‘for cause’ limitations or durational terms clearly violate the Charter and Constitutional separation of powers doctrine,” the memo concludes.

Assembly leadership were in a special assembly meeting Monday evening when the memo was released and were not immediately available for comment. Constant has previously said that legal action could potentially be a next step.

One measure set to be discussed and possibly voted on during Monday’s special assembly meeting is an ordinance brought forward by LaFrance and Constant that would make changes to and speed up the process for assembly confirmation of mayoral appointees.

Clarification: The headline and first paragraph of this article have been updated to clarify that the municipal attorney’s memo asserts that elements of the ordinance establishing the city’s chief equity officer violate the city’s charter, rather than the ordinance as a whole.

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