Suppressing the vote? Anchorage Muni Clerk Barb Jones threatens city manager with lawsuit over website election info box

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The Municipal Clerk of Anchorage has sent a scorching letter to Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, taking umbrage and threatening legal action because the Bronson Administration posted a yellow box on the front page of its website reminding people that there is a special election coming soon, and directing them to the Clerk’s page for more information.

Clerk Barbara Jones insisted only she can give out information about elections, and she believes this is an election law violation of “grave concern” with the box on the front page of the Muni website.

Jones earlier this month was caught spying on draft documents of the Administration and passing information on to her allies on the Assembly, a violation of her duties. No consequence has been reported regarding spying on the Executive Branch by the Assembly branch, for whom Jones works; Jones had been slipping draft plans to Assemblyman Chris Constant.

Read: Barbara Jones caught spying at Mayor’s private documents, passing info to Assembly

The special election concerns the recall of controversial Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel, who represents Midtown Anchorage. She is at the heart of a hated universal masking mandate that she and leftist allies on the Assembly are pushing through as an ordinance this week. The Clerk reports to Zaletel, who she may be seeking to protect.

Read: “We’ve Had Enough: Recall Zaletel” group launches website

Ballots for the mail-only election will be sent out on Oct. 5 or 6, with the deadline for getting them back to the Clerk’s Office on Oct. 26.

The yellow box that offended Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones.

But the public, if they wanted to vote in this district and needed to change their official voter registration with the state, had only until Sunday, September 26 to get those changes made.

The Clerk had posted no timely information on how to do that. Normally, a bright yellow “Elections” box is visible on the front page of the Municipality’s homepage prior to and just after an election.

In fact, Jones first placed an election notice on line on Sept. 26, buried on the Elections page, too late for anyone to change their voter registration if they had moved into the district recently.

See the Clerk’s Sept. 26 notice about the special election at this link.

Jones’ letter says she believes that the Administration posting the information box and link without her permission constitutes an interference in elections.

Through a public records request, Must Read Alaska obtained memos that circulated in the Administration on the topic, and the letter that Clerk Jones sent to Demboski, in which she complained about the box.

It all started on Sept. 22, when Demboski wrote to the city’s IT manager, asking him why there was no notification about an upcoming election.

“I was just noticing on the Muni homepage that there is no reference to the upcoming special election. I find this odd because I recall always seeing a prominent notice right on the home page whenever there is an election. Can you please work with your team to put a banner on the homepage to ensure the public can easily find election information? Thank you in advance for your help; it is greatly appreciated,” Demboski wrote.

Erika McConnell, deputy clerk, then wrote a note, saying that “I’m following up my recent phone call with an email, cc’ed to Director Dahl, to reiterate our expectation that all changes to the municipal website specifically relating to Assembly branch matters, including elections, must be approved by the Municipal Clerk’s Office.”

The clerk had not approved notifying the public about the election and was asserting its control over the information.

By Sept. 24, McConnell was demanding the box about the special election be removed and replaced with a box that simply said “Elections.”

“Would you please replace the yellow box at the top of the muni home page with the standard yellow box that says ‘Elections’ that is part of the group of department/issue boxes? Please let me know by when you can get that change made,” McConnell wrote to the webmaster.

Then came phone messages from Barbara Jones, some other notes back and forth with the IT department, Demboski, and the webmaster, and finally a long and formal letter to Demboski:

I understand the Muni webmaster Heather Holland was directed to add the information in the snippet below to the Municipal Home page regarding the Special Election.  This was done without knowledge or notice to anyone on the Municipal Clerk’s Election Team, and is very concerning.

The Municipal Clerk’s Office has all authority regarding running and supervising municipal elections as detailed in the Charter and Title 28.  The Charter states that “[t]he assembly by ordinance shall establish procedures for regular and special municipal elections….”  Section 11.02(a).  The Assembly’s ordinances codified in Title 28 specifies that “[t]he municipal clerk shall prepare for, conduct, and supervise all municipal elections….” AMC 28.10.020.  There is no role in Title 28 for the Mayor nor the Administration in the running and supervising of municipal elections.   

The Municipal Clerk’s Office and OIT have an “OIT Elections Playbook” to discuss election operations for which the Clerk’s Office uses OIT’s assistance.  Nothing in the Playbook authorizes OIT to update the website without the Clerk’s Office authorization. This is important, because of the rules in state statute and Ethics Code regarding use of municipal resources to influence an election.

At the least Marc, you and I discussed that if OIT has concerns about elections, OIT should communicate that concern to the Clerk’s Office.  The failure to communicate this change is troubling, not the least of which is that it appears that the Administration is conducting outreach and education about the Special Election.    

As detailed above, only the Municipal Clerk’s Office has the authority to conduct outreach and education about elections.  No other Municipal entity – neither the Assembly nor the Mayor – has the authority to conduct outreach and education about elections because it is not in the Mayor’s nor the Administration’s usual course of duties to conduct outreach and education about elections.  Because this banner was not authorized by the Municipal Clerk’s Office, it appears to be conduct in violation of state law and an APOC violation,” Jones wrote.

“These issues are serious and of grave concern.  I encourage you to seek guidance from the Department of Law immediately, if you are skeptical of the points in this message.  The integrity all municipal elections and compliance with Charter, Municipal Code, and state law Is a duty charged to the Municipal Clerk. This message is in an attempt to prevent irreversible taint on the upcoming election and correct what were probably well-intentioned actions but that appear to violate election laws as described above,” Jones wrote.

Demboski was having none of it. She responded that the city manager is responsible to the mayor for the overall administrative functions of the municipality and that she has no intention of requesting permission from Jones for what is a simple matter of notifying the public of a special election.

“The Administration has taken no position, done no advertising for or against, with respect to the upcoming Municipal Special Election. I simply instructed IT to create a link on the municipal homepage to direct the public to the Clerk’s webpage disseminating your publicly available election information, which is usual and customary for a link/banner/or button on the homepage directing the public to Clerk’s webpage where they can find more information on elections. This practice is routine and clearly an administrative function of government; the Administration is historically responsible for the design and maintenance of the municipal website. Simply directing people to your information is not interfering with, “running,” or “supervising” an election, nor is it utilizing municipal resources to attempt to influence an election in any way. To accept that premise, would be to accept that directing the public to the Municipal Clerk’s election information is itself biased, which would imply the Clerk’s information is biased and will sway the election. The argument is ludicrous on its face. Furthermore, Eberhart, was about an Assembly Member who used staff to do opposition research on his opponent; this, situation has no bearing here whatsoever,” Demboski wrote.

Demboski went on to describe politely how the previous administration of Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson had all but destroyed the municipal website as she handed it over to the Bronson Administration and that it has been under reconstruction ever since.

The website left for Mayor Bronson featured Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson, a Twitter feed, and the city’s vaccination status.

“This Administration has been here just shy of 3 months, and in that time we have had to completely remake the Municipal website because the last administration left us with a mess. The current website now looks similar, but it is slightly varied in look and function, but the historical feel and function has been largely recreated (this includes directing folks to the Clerk’s page relating to elections). We are simply doing our best to help the public find information on the website, which the public and the Assembly have told us many times they wanted,” Demboski wrote.

She then went on to push back against the allegation of “irreversible taint on the upcoming election,” and the allegation that the box somehow breaks election laws.

“I find those comments salacious, unfounded, lacking of logic or common sense, and without basis in Anchorage Municipal Code or Charter. In fact, I have great concern that the reaction from you and the Deputy Clerk (in a series of emails and phone calls to IT) lead me to question why the Clerk’s office is attempting to create obstacles for the public to gain information about this election (from your own webpage, by the way)? Multiple administrations before this one, have had prompts on the muni homepage directing folks to election information; did you also raise this level of concern over those prompts on the homepage in previous elections? Which ones? If not, why not? Why this election? The reaction of the Clerk’s office leadership creates an appearance of bias, which leads me to question your objectivity, or ability, to conduct and oversee this election in a neutral manner. This is a great concern that could significantly erode the public’s trust in the fundamental fairness of elections, as well as the presumed neutral process conducting and overseeing the elections,” Demboski wrote.

“I never thought it would cause controversy because people are directed to your webpage for election information. In my humble opinion, it is a totally nonsensical and an indefensible position. I hope after some reflection and consideration of the facts, you realize that this is an overreaction; the facts are: we have taken no positions relating to this Special Election, we simply created a link to publicly available information on your webpage, which is impossible to ‘taint or sway’ an election, again, unless your information is biased toward one side or the other. Unfortunately, I fear the this reaction has done a great deal of harm to the Clerk’s office leadership’s appearance of neutrality,” Demboski wrote, concluding her letter by saying she would continue to do her job and will not ask the Clerk permission to conduct administrative functions of government, including the management of the Municipality’s website.

In September, Jones had issued a press release announcing it is voter registration month, without notifying people that there was a special election the following month that they might want to register for.

Jones has had a testy relationship with the Bronson Administration since the April election, when the Bronson campaign outworked Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar. The Bronson campaign worked hard to help people whose ballots had been rejected because of a technical flaw get their ballots fixed and filed with Jones in time to be counted. Jones publicly objected to many of the Bronson team’s campaign volunteers who were observers at the vote-counting building at Ship Creek, and the fact that they watched the building 24-7 during the vote counting process, staffing a recreational vehicle with observers to keep track of who was coming and going to the building.

Jones made no secret of her irritation with the Bronson campaign, while the Dunbar campaign sent her flowers through Assemblyman Chris Constant, one of the key lieutenants of the Dunbar campaign.

The success of the campaign has led the Assembly to introduce an ordinance prohibiting people from helping others vote.



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