Anchorage Assembly weighs how to fill the mayor’s seat

assembly members stand for a pledge
Assembly members recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, where Chief of Staff Jason Bockenstedt announced Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

On Friday evening, less than two weeks after Mayor Ethan Berkowitz resigned due to a scandal, Austin Quinn-Davidson was sworn in as the acting mayor of Anchorage.

Now, the Anchorage Assembly is weighing how to permanently fill the mayor’s seat.

One option: The Assembly does nothing. Then, during the next scheduled election on April 6, Anchorage residents would choose a new mayor and that person would take office on July 1. Quinn-Davidson would remain interim mayor until then. This option has been used once before, when former mayor Mark Begich resigned to become Alaska’s U.S. Senator.

If the Assembly goes the route of waiting until the April 6 election, they could take action to allow the newly-elected mayor to take office sooner than July 1.

Another option: The Assembly schedules a special election in January, at least 90 days after Berkowitz’s resignation on Oct. 23. Municipal Attorney Kate Vogel advised the Assembly that the special election should be held sooner rather than later to avoid ballots for the special election and the April 6 regular election crossing in the mail.

Assemblyman Felix Rivera said he didn’t think it makes sense to hold a special election and a regular election over the next several months. With run-off elections, that could mean four elections in five months.

“The fiscal responsibility piece is actually what my constituents are reaching out to me about,” he said at a work session on Thursday. “They don’t want a special election because of the cost associated with it.”

According to Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones, a special election would cost the city about $350,000. A subsequent run-off election, if no candidate receives more than 45% of the votes, would cost another $323,000.

Assemblyman John Weddleton added that so much turnover in the mayor’s office could be chaotic for the city. He said he would like to see the next mayor elected in April but seated earlier than July. 

Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy disagreed, saying an interim mayor, elected by the Assembly, is just a temporary stopgap. She said a special election should be held for Anchorage residents to have adequate say in their leadership. 

“Really, it’s not the Assembly’s job to appoint a mayor. And essentially, that’s what we’re doing for the time being. But we should be … allowing the public to fulfill their responsibility of electing the mayor,” she said.

Assemblyman Kameron Perez-Verdia said he also leans toward holding a special election.

At Thursday’s work session, Assemblywoman Jamie Allard raised concerns that Quinn-Davidson’s district in West Anchorage won’t have representation on the Assembly while she is acting mayor.

Municipal Attorney Rick Gates said that serving as acting mayor isn’t considered a vacancy from the Assembly. The city’s charter doesn’t have a provision for appointing a temporary replacement.

Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel said she thinks the Assembly members of nearby districts can work collaboratively to make sure West Anchorage will remain well represented.

The Assembly will decide which option to take at a future meeting.