Anchorage Assembly allows counsel to join litigation over firing of chief equity officer

Assembly counsel will litigate validity of city code section describing how chief equity officer can be fired
Published: Dec. 7, 2021 at 10:01 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Among several other actions during their regular Tuesday night meeting, members of the Anchorage Assembly voted to allow the assembly counsel to participate in a lawsuit filed by the city’s former chief equity officer after he was fired.

Clifford Armstrong III was appointed by former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson as Anchorage’s first ever chief equity officer. In October, Mayor Dave Bronson fired Armstrong and replaced him with Uluao “Junior” Aumavae. Armstrong says he was given no reason for his termination, and in November sued the city, claiming his firing was not valid or legal.

A resolution passed at Tuesday night’s assembly meeting allows Dean Gates, legal counsel for the assembly, to participate in the ongoing litigation on behalf of the assembly in order to defend the municipal code established in regard to the chief equity officer position. That section of municipal code states that “The chief equity officer may be dismissed by the mayor only for cause shown, and only with the concurrence of a majority of the assembly.”

Assembly leadership have argued that since Bronson did not provide a cause for firing Armstrong, and since he did not get concurrence of the assembly, the termination is not legally valid or complete.

Bronson’s administration, on the other hand, maintains that the firing was valid, according to a section of city charter that described the powers of the mayor. That section states that “Persons appointed by the mayor serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” which Bronson’s administration has argued means he can terminate appointees without cause.

In a memo to the assembly, Anchorage Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt claimed that elements of the ordinance that created the position in the first place violate the city’s charter. By participating in the lawsuit, assembly counsel would be litigating the validity and legality of the section of city code that lays out how the chief equity officer can be fired, according to the resolution passed Tuesday.

“This type of litigation is for declaratory relief,” Gates said during Tuesday’s meeting. “... We’re not suing for money damages or things like that, it’s declaratory relief (and) would just be the court saying ‘this is what this law means.’”

Gates noted that Armstrong himself has a slightly different claim than the assembly’s.

“To be clear, this isn’t about the assembly being involved in Mr. Armstrong ... his claims,” Gates said. “But his claims are related to his dismissal based on that code section, and the code section that we’re looking at.”

Gates noted that city code requires the assembly to authorize counsel joining litigation if outside counsel is going to be retained, and if it will cost over $30,000. He said it’s likely that, should the litigation continue to go forward, outside counsel would be retained.

Armstrong says he was fired three days after sending a draft report on an affirmative action plan for the city to members of the administration, a report that highlighted disparities in hiring practices. He believes that’s one of the reasons he was fired.

The resolution allowing assembly counsel to join the litigation passed with a 9-2 vote, with assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy voting against it.

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