Demboski demand letter alleges hostile work environment, impropriety at Anchorage City Hall

Demboski has engaged attorney Scott Kendall of the firm Cashion, Gilmore & Lindemuth to resolve the matter.
Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 7:16 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2023 at 11:38 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Through a demand letter sent from her lawyer to Mayor Dave Bronson and Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christiansen, former Anchorage Municipal Manager Amy Demboski states that her firing by Bronson was “retaliatory and unlawful.”

The letter makes further allegations that Bronson’s behavior following the termination of Demboski constitutes slander, and states that its delivery will “provide an opportunity to resolve this matter short of extensive discovery and costly litigation.”

Demboski has engaged attorney Scott Kendall of the firm Cashion, Gilmore & Lindemuth to resolve the matter.

The letter alleges that following the termination of Demboski’s employment with the Municipality of Anchorage on Dec. 19, Mayor Bronson “instructed executive staff to leak information to the press in a belated attempt to somehow tie Ms. Demboski’s termination to an incident in which she used vulgar language regarding another Municipal employee.”

The use of foul language, the letter purports, was not an issue that garnered disciplinary actions prior to Demboski’s termination.

The letter also refers to another communique — this one an email from Demboski to Bronson sent on Dec. 14 — in which Demboski detailed the mayor’s use of “unlawful and unethical activities using municipal resources.”

According to Demboski and Kendall, that email was the impetus for “immediate retaliation against her and was the direct cause of her firing” and alleges that Bronson cited the Dec. 14 email as the reason for her termination.

The letter goes on to list several issues which purport to show Bronson’s “legal and ethical lapses as Mayor,” including delegation of tasks typically under the purview of the Municipal Manager to the Purchasing Director instead — an action that typically requires consent from the Department of Law and the manager.

“While the code does say the mayor can delegate certain authorities, it has always been the practice and interpretation that contract authority is inherent in the administration of government and under the direct authority of the Municipal Manager,” the letter said.

Demboski’s letter also alleges Mayor Bronson deliberately directed the signing of several sole-source contracts without the use of a competitive bidding process open to the public. Lobbyist contracts and all no-bid contracts valued above $30,000 require the approval of the Anchorage Assembly. Instead, the letter states, Mayor Bronson circumvented the procedure laid out in municipal code by signing a series of three sole-source contracts with Senior Policy Advisor Larry Baker.

“The Mayor’s Office has intentionally executed at least three sole source contracts with Mr. Baker for $29,500 each in almost immediate succession to one another, with only a three-day break between each. This disingenuous scheme is a clear violation of the law limiting the size of such contracts,” the letter said.

Additionally, the letter calls into question the purpose of hiring Baker on contract rather than as a full-fledged employee of the Municipality.

“We do not understand why you did not simply hire Mr. Baker as a Municipal employee. One possible motivation for this scheme could be to defraud the PERS system — that is, Mr. Baker could act essentially as a Municipal employee, while pretending to be a private contractor, allowing him to “double dip” — collecting retirement payments and contract payments simultaneously,” the letter said.

Kendall goes on to say that Baker had been advised to take the first month of 2023 off, then go back on contract, but that there appears to have been no break in work by Baker, as the letter alleges that he is still meeting with Bronson in a professional capacity. Further, the letter says that this action “appears to be nothing more than another attempt to evade the limit on sole source contracts and to continue to skirt the PERS contribution that would normally be required of a full-time employee.”

Other contract issues are highlighted in Demboski’s letter. It states that a request for purchase was put out in Aug. 2021 that garnered responses from two potential contractors, one of whom was a personal acquaintance of Bronson’s. Another friend of Bronson’s, described in the letter as “a close associate,” approached a Municipal employee on the contract approval committee with a demand that they “swing” the contract with the Mayor’s friend.

That Municipal employee was made uncomfortable by this request and reported to their supervisor as well as the Department of Law. The contract was eventually awarded, but to the other potential contractor, which led the applicant that was Bronson’s “close associate” to complain about the Municipal employee directly to the mayor, who then terminated that person’s employment with the Municipality — and told Demboski of the firing. Demboski reacted by expressing that she did not like that the termination was done without her approval, or that of the employee’s direct supervisor.

Additional problems with the proposed Tudor Road navigation center, including clandestine meetings with the Maintenance and Operations Director, are outlined as well.

“The Bronson Administration has a chain of command, but it was completely ignored regarding the Navigation Center project,” the letter said.

According to the letter, the director of Maintenance and Operations later signed off on work orders, but it appears that it was done at the behest of Mayor Bronson — however, it is not indicated how that request was made or executed.

The issue raised in the letter with the work orders is that they were not obtained through existing channels that operate in accordance with Municipal code, and were made with the intention that the “M&O Director would ultimately be the one to “take the fall” for the decision.”

“These communications circumvented Ms. Demboski, now-Chief of Staff Adam Trombley and Public Works Director Lance Wilber.”

Additionally, the letter states that Demboski herself had to bring a contract amendment to the Anchorage Assembly after an existing contract with Roger Hickel Contractors expired but the contractor continued to complete work. This led Demboski to go to the construction site “to ensure the work was stopped.”

The total value of the work performed out-of-contract could be as much as $4.5 million, the letter said.

Another allegation brought forward by the letter is that City Hall has become a hostile work environment under Bronson’s leadership, particularly for women in the administration.

“Staff has often reported to Ms. Demboski and others that you treat women in the office differently than men. Despite her very senior position, Ms. Demboski acutely experienced such gender discrimination from you herself,” the letter said. “For example, on one occasion Ms. Demboski sent an email in which she referred to a male subordinate’s email to multiple directors as “suboptimal” in tone and encouraged better communication with a clearer definition of what this subordinate needs.”

According to the letter, Demboski’s actions were chastised by Bronson, who raised his voice and demonstrated with his hands the difference between male and female employees.

The letter states that Bronson reacted to this exchange between Demboski and the male subordinate by raising one hand up to demonstrate a male employee was “up here,” and placing his other hand lower to show Demboski was “down there” — lower in rank than the male subordinate. Two days after this display, Bronson again criticized Demboski and said that she was not to speak to a man “that way” in “this building” — referring to City Hall.

Myriad other issues within Bronson’s administration were named in the letter, including longstanding issues surrounding the use of the Sullivan Arena as a temporary shelter, claims of unethical attempts to direct real estate transactions on behalf of the municipality, and requests of municipal attorneys to resolve issues for friends of the administration. This included requests that then-Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt use his position to dismiss domestic violence and stalking charges laid against a friend of Baker. The letter claims that Bergt expressed shock and discomfort about the request to Demboski, and said that in addition to this interaction, that friend reached out to Bergt and stated he had been directed to do so by Baker.

It was also reported in the letter that Bronson told Demboski that he went to Baker’s house armed with a firearm when the Anchorage Police Department was called to the home for a domestic violence incident in November of 2022.

The letter supports the role of Demboski as a whistleblower and includes the Anchorage Municipal Code section which protects public employees as whistleblowers when reporting “a matter of public concern,” which can be defined as a violation of state, federal or municipal laws, ordinances or regulations; a danger to public health and safety; gross mismanagement or abuse of authority, among other criteria.

Whistleblowers who report illicit or inappropriate activities are protected by the Anchorage Whistleblower Act. According to the letter, Demboski reported several instances of inappropriate activity to the Ombudsman as well as to Bronson.

“As a whistleblower, Ms. Demboski can bring a civil action that would entitle her to not only her compensatory damages, but also to punitive damages up to three times the amount of any compensatory damages award,” the letter said.

Bronson also stands to pay a civil fine of $10,000 if Demboski’s whistleblower claims are found to be valid in civil court.

Demboski alleges in the letter that following her departure from City Hall, Bronson used his position of power to impugn and defame Demboski publicly, and requested that his employees do the same. Moreover, it states that her termination by Bronson in December of 2022 was the direct result of her complaints regarding his actions.

The letter calls for the issues to be resolved through a settlement of undisclosed value, a written apology from Bronson, as well as Bronson’s signature on a non-disparagement agreement.

Deputy Communications Director Hans Rodvik replied to a request for comment on the matter with a short statement.

“The Municipal Attorney’s Office has advised us not to discuss these issues as they relate to potential litigation matters,” Rodvik wrote.

Reactions to the letter from Demboski’s former colleagues in the Anchorage Assembly expressed a lack of shock regarding the allegations and defended Demboski’s role as a whistleblower.

“We’ve heard whispers of some of things, things happening in the administration, but we’ve never had proof, we’ve never had anyone come forward and do what Ms. Demboski’s doing — which is essentially being a whistleblower, telling the truth far and wide,” Assemblymember Felix Rivera said.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, the assembly leadership released a statement in an email.

“The allegations in the letter are extremely shocking and outline a level of mismanagement of municipal resources that we have not seen in our tenure on the Assembly. Because the allegations are so extreme, we are still processing all that we have read and determining what action the Assembly can take to safeguard the municipality’s employees, finances and reputation,” the statement said. “The people of Anchorage have a right to know if their city is being run legally and responsibly. Therefore, we call on Mayor Bronson to respond to these allegations right away.”

The assembly leadership statement reminded municipal employees of the resources available to them if they see improprieties. The statement noted that the Assembly “added new controls on our process for approving the administration’s contracts,” but that the assembly itself is limited in addressing workplace issues.

“Up until now, we’ve never had that and I think this just shows how much of a clown show this administration really is,” Rivera said. “This is a huge nail in the coffin of the political future of this mayor.”

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance responded to the letter by saying, “The community deserves a response from the mayor. The mayor owes the community a response and explanation and we are in new territory and not in a new way, LaFrance said.

Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant relays that the new allegations against the mayor, while not expected, aren’t unprecedented either.

“I’m left with a really strong sense of shock, but at the same time an acknowledgment that I’m not surprised,” Constant said. ”If you look at the tone of the last couple of years, you know, we have them attempting to turn off the video feed in our meetings, you had the Joe Gerace debacle, you had the fluoride issue — all these things detailed in the letter and so many more, and it’s getting to the point where this is the new norm for the municipality from its mayor at this time.”

Demboski, through her attorney Kendall, has requested the mayor respond to the complaints made in the letter before Jan. 18.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the assembly leadership, which was issued on Jan. 12.