Anchorage Assembly passes ordinance to safeguard ombudsman office

Anchorage Assembly passes ordinance to safeguard ombudsman office
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 11:19 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - An ordinance passed last week by the Anchorage Assembly is stirring controversy between the Assembly and mayor’s administration.

The ordinance — formerly titled AO 2023-27 — amends the authorities and safeguards governing the office of the Ombudsman.

The resolution came out in light of what the assembly calls apparent and pressing threats to investigations. It was met with controversy Tuesday night, forcing the Assembly to adjourn with the rest of the agenda on Wednesday.

The ordinance passed 9-2 Wednesday night with Eagle River/Chugiak representative Kevin Cross and South Anchorage representative Randy Sulte voting against it.

The proposed ordinance will make permanent the amended language and would increase the fine for hindering an Ombudsman’s lawful activities and investigations up to $5,000.

“This ordinance simply codifies the power of the ombudsman that we believe is inherent,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said.

Ombudsman Darrel Hess was at the meeting to give his thoughts on the amendments.

Constant believes the last couple of months have proven challenging for the workers of the municipality. He said that a number of employees have come forward to the Assembly and the ombudsman in regards to how the workforce is being treated and their experiences.

Hess issued a memo in January referencing a municipal “executive” that said Mayor Dave Bronson’s office was viewing surveillance footage of the ombudsman’s office to see which employees visited the office and spoke with members of the Anchorage Assembly.

“(It comes) right down to arguments that members of the workforce have been spied upon,” Constant said. “The oversight body being monitored or the cameras outside of the ombudsman’s office being reviewed.”

In the past, Bronson has stated he “takes these allegations very seriously and does not condone what has been alleged.”

Another part of the discussion over the ordinance involved the administration disagreeing to what extent the ombudsman has access to some confidential records, but most of the assembly agreed these are inherent powers.

“It’s a position that was derived in order provide independent protection from any kind of workplace issues and concerns that should be addressed in a manner that is confidential and outside of the normal chains of command,” Constant said.

In addition, the civil penalty for hindering the ombudsman went up dramatically with this ordinance.

“We’ve raised to basically as high as the number of other serious civil penalties — up to $5,000, not a mandatory $5,000,” Constant said.

Bronson thought that was too much.

“When I look at the penalty portion, we have a 6,700% increase in the penalty,” Bronson noted. “I just want to know how that was calculated or where we get that from.”

The mayor proposed four different amendments to the ordinance, including one that would remove the provision for the ombudsman to hold private hearings. It was the only amendment recommended by the administration that was approved.