Former Anchorage chief equity officer is suing the Bronson administration for wrongful termination

a man poses for a portrait in a city area
Chief Equity Officer Clifford Armstrong III. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s former chief equity officer is suing Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, claiming he was wrongfully terminated.

In a legal complaint filed Tuesday, Clifford Armstrong III alleged that the mayor fired him in a manner that went against municipal code. According to code, the chief equity officer can only be fired by the mayor if there’s documented cause for termination and if a majority of the Assembly agrees.

“Instead, the MOA delivered Mr. Armstrong a letter stating (incorrectly) that he served at the ‘pleasure of the mayor,'” the lawsuit says, referring to the Municipality of Anchorage.

Armstrong says he was fired shortly after he presented a report to Bronson senior officials that the city was not meeting its goals for hiring employees with disabilities and other underrepresented classes.

“I basically sent that email on Tuesday,” Armstrong said. “It kind of led to a bit of a falling out, so to speak, and then I was asked to resign or accept voluntary separation the following Thursday.”

Armstrong says the argument over his firing is about whether under city code he works directly for or “at the pleasure of” the mayor or whether he works for the city, overseen by the Assembly.  

“The Assembly views me as still being employed,” Armstrong said. “The administration obviously does not.”

In a letter sent to the mayor’s chief of staff and municipal attorney last month, Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance and Assembly vice chair Chris Constant said the firing was not legal.

“As a matter of law Mr. Armstrong is still the Chief Equity Officer of the Municipality. He continues to be employed until there is a showing of cause for his dismissal, communicated to the Assembly, and by majority vote the body concurs with the dismissal,” the letter says. 

In a legal memorandum sent to the Assembly on Monday night, ahead of the lawsuit, municipal attorney Patrick Bergt wrote that the Bronson administration believes it is legally able to fire Armstrong without cause.

“Our Charter is plain and unambiguous—executive mayoral appointees serve at the pleasure of the mayor and therefore may be dismissed by the mayor without cause,” Bergt wrote.

In an email, Bronson communications director Corey Allen Young declined to comment on the lawsuit, writing “the legal opinion of Patrick Bergt speaks for itself.”

After Armstrong was fired, Bronson hired Uluao “Junior” Aumavae to fill the position. Aumavae previously worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration as a community outreach specialist.

Armstrong was confirmed by the Assembly in late April to serve as the municipality’s first chief equity officer, under acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson. The job is designed to promote equity by making sure hiring and contracting is fair and represents the diverse perspectives of Anchorage.

“My firing doesn’t only prevent some of the information that’s already here from being presented factually to the community,” Armstrong said. “But it also prevents the future work that would’ve produced better data so we can have a very meaningful understanding of exactly what our numbers do or don’t look like in a way that would work for the muni and for the community at large and other organizations to copy.”

Armstrong is the second former high-level Municipal employee to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against Mayor Bronson in the past month. Former Real Estate Director Christina Hendrickson filed a suit in October, claiming she was fired in retaliation for making a whistleblower complaint.

Armstrong is asking for damages in the form of backpay from lost wages and benefits as well as legal fees. Additionally, he’s requesting to be reinstated as the chief equity officer to serve out the rest of his term, which would end in 2025.

Correction: This story previously misidentified the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.

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