Oct. 30—Mayoral candidates
The Anchorage Assembly recently approved sending voters a ballot proposition that would add time-specific rules to the city's charter for filling mayoral vacancies.
The ballot proposition comes after the abrupt resignation of former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz in the fall of 2020 put a spotlight on ambiguous language in the section of the city's charter that dictates how the empty seat is filled in that scenario. That ambiguity fueled a dispute among city officials and residents over when an election should be held — and it led to frustration from some when the Assembly opted not to hold a special election and waited until the following spring's regular mayoral election.
As the charter is currently written, once the mayor's office becomes vacant, it is filled during a regular or special election. That can't happen sooner than 90 days after the seat becomes vacant — but after the 90-day period, the charter language doesn't specify a time frame for when an election should occur. The chair of the Assembly serves as acting mayor until a new one is elected.
The ballot proposition would remedy that by placing clearer bounds on when a new mayor must be elected, according to Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly member Kevin Cross, who sponsored the proposition with member Jamie Allard, who represents the same district.
Anchorage voters should expect to see it on the ballot during the next regular election in April, he said.
[Assembly rejects further spending on East Anchorage homeless shelter]
An acting mayor is, "for lack of a better term, a spare tire," Cross said. "You don't drive indefinitely on a spare tire."
Here are details on on what the proposition would do:
—It would require the Assembly to call for a special election to fill the mayor's seat if the vacancy occurs more than 270 days before the next regular election.
—The special election would be required to take place no more than 120 days after the mayor's seat is vacated, but could not occur until 90 days had passed from the date of vacancy. The elected successor would serve the remaining balance of the term and take office 30 days after the special election's certification.
—If the mayor's seat becomes empty within 270 days of a regular election and is vacated when more than 90 days are left in the departed mayor's term, the Assembly can either hold a special election or wait until the next regular election.
—The Assembly chair still becomes acting mayor until a new one is elected.
—The proposition would also allow the Assembly to temporarily fill the empty seat left on the Assembly while its chair is acting mayor. The Assembly would be able to appoint a representative to serve the chair's district until a new mayor is elected.
The charter's current language could allow for an acting mayor to serve for more than two years if a newly-elected mayor vacated the office shortly into the three-year term, albeit a hypothetical and unlikely scenario, Cross said. That's not fair to voters, because Assembly members are elected by district, not in citywide elections like a mayor, he said. And the Assembly chair, who would become acting mayor, is selected from among the members by the members themselves, he said.
The measure was initially conceived by former Assembly member John Weddleton and co-sponsored by former member Crystal Kennedy, Cross said.
Berkowitz stepped down during the last year of his second 3-year term as mayor, after a local news anchor made unsubstantiated allegations about him and he later admitted to having a "consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship" with her.
At the time, the Assembly by vote selected member Austin-Quinn Davidson as chair, and she became the acting mayor.
With a regular mayoral election about five months away, Assembly members disagreed over whether a special election was necessary. Ultimately they opted not to hold a special election, and Quinn-Davidson served out the remaining 8 months or so of Berkowitz's term. Members said a special election could sow further chaos amid the pandemic and that the city could possibly see four different mayors in less than a year.
That sparked anger among a vocal contingent of residents opposed to Berkowitz's policies on COVID-19, homelessness and other issues, and who saw Quinn-Davidson as a continuation of the Berkowitz administration. Some testifiers at Assembly meetings frequently referred to Quinn-Davidson as the "unelected mayor" and vocally opposed the Assembly's decision. Some said they viewed it as a "tyrannical" usurping of power from voters.
Cross said he views that situation differently.
"She served diligently and she worked her butt off while she was in there. I don't have to agree with the decisions that she made. But she stood up in a time of need and she did her job and she did it faithfully," Cross said. "We're not — I'm not — here to badger her over that. I'm here to say that in the process of that, we discovered some flaws. And you don't blame the pilot if you don't like the way the plane was built. You fix the plane. And that's what we're doing."
Filling a mayoral vacancy comes with several complications, Cross said. It's expensive to hold a special election, and can be confusing to voters if a regular election is coming a few months on its heels. It's also a big lift for the city's election staff, especially if a regular election is also on the way, he said.
City officials must strike a balance between the duty to get an elected mayor back in office and the responsible use of taxpayer money, he said.
"We sat down with curiosity — how do we set some more definitive dates in there, so that the voter feels confident? And when the situation arises, it's less susceptible to abuse or ill intent, and (voters) have confidence that our intention is to get an elected mayor in that role as soon as possible, while being responsible with their money?" Cross said.
The Assembly held work sessions on the proposal. Before the Assembly approved sending the measure to voters, they also included a change proposed by Vice Chair Chris Constant which allows for more wiggle room in another scenario when a mayoral seat is vacated within 270 days of a regular election.
"What we came up with here, I think is a fantastic compromise," Cross said.