Anchorage Assembly confirms Bronson’s pick for health director

Joe Gerace talks with people in front of dumpsters in front of the Sullivan Arena shelter
Anchorage’s acting health director Joe Gerace meets with journalists outside of the Sullivan Arena shelter before a walkthrough tour on Nov. 1, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly has voted to confirm Mayor Dave Bronson’s choice for health director.

The vote was 7-3 to confirm Joe Gerace. Members Austin Quinn-Davidson, Suzanne LaFrance and Felix Rivera were opposed. Member Meg Zaletel was excused from the meeting.

Gerace was appointed by Bronson in September after his first pick for the position, David Morgan, resigned shortly before his confirmation hearing.

Assembly members said they received several emails Tuesday that raised questions over personnel issues with Gerace at his previous workplace, Visit Healthcare. During Tuesday night’s meeting, Bronson’s head of Human Resources Niki Tshibaka called the allegations false, inaccurate and “a pure character assassination.”

The Assembly delayed voting to confirm Gerace to Friday and spent more than two hours in executive session, where they deliberated with each other, Gerace and the Mayor’s administration. They also heard in-person testimony from two women who had expressed concerns over Gerace’s appointment.

Coming out of the executive session, several Assembly members spoke ahead of the vote to confirm Gerace.

Member Kameron Perez-Verdia thanked the people who had spoken against Gerace’s confirmation for coming forward, as well as Gerace for his transparency and “openness” in discussing the complaints.

“I think the information we were given was important, and I’ve heard it.” Perez-Verdia said. “But at the end of the day, I feel that Mr. Gerace is qualified for this job and should be confirmed.”

Member Felix Rivera agreed with Perez-Verdia’s assertion that Gerace was qualified for the job, but he said qualification was one of two things he was looking for in the candidate.

“There is also the ‘do no harm’ aspect, and that is where I’m carefully weighing how I will be voting,” said Rivera, who would later vote against confirming Gerace.

Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who ultimately voted to confirm the nominee for health director, told Gerace that he hopes he will prove to be an effective department head.

“I challenge you to, if confirmed, find a way to develop a relationship with your team,” Constant said. “Because to me, nothing against you, but to me they’re more important than you are. Leaders come and go, but the people saving lives are ones we need their hands on the job and feeling supported.”

Member Austin Quinn-Davidson said if confirmed, she hoped that she and Gerace would work well together, but she would be voting against confirming him.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “But to receive more than 10 individuals, making very serious claims, I can’t in good conscience move forward.”

Quinn-Davidson said the complaints heard were from men and women, spanning three different companies.

Alaska Public Media obtained copies of some of the emails sent to the Assembly. Several of them include accusations of favoritism in hiring by Gerace, and say he created an unprofessional working environment.

Jennifer Wallace wrote one of the emails to the Assembly and testified during the executive session. She had worked with Gerace as Outdoor/Mobile Vaccine Operations Manager of Visit Health.

“I just expressed my grave concern with his ability to lead people,” Wallace said after Gerace was confirmed. “I expressed my concern with his misogyny and the way he treats women significantly different than men. I expressed my concern in how he would do at the health department because of his hostility towards Visit and his distaste of the homeless population.”

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Wallace said she was angry and surprised following the confirmation of Gerace, considering the wide spectrum of testimony against him. She said she doesn’t expect Gerace to act any differently as Anchorage’s health director than he did when they worked together.

“Working with him closely and knowing him as well as I do, I don’t believe that will happen,” Wallace said. “But for the sake of the health department and for the most vulnerable populations that he’ll be in charge of, I hope so.”

In response to a request for comment, Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young emailed a statement from Gerace.

“I have never had an OSHA or HR complaints or an investigation by the Department of Public Health. Visit Health was the subject not myself. All of these were unfounded,” Gerace said. “There was no written direction as a result. I have records of these complaints being unfounded. I have never had a negative review while on deployments and have never been spoken to by the staff advocate. No one was fired for reporting safety violations or concerns.”

Young also sent nine letters and statements in support of Gerace’s confirmation that were sent to the mayor’s office.

The Assembly previously voted against two other executive appointments from Mayor Bronson. Sami Graham was voted down for chief librarian, though Bronson named her Chief of Staff moments after she wasn’t confirmed. Additionally, the Assembly voted against confirming Jim Winegarner for real estate director. Winegarner was the subject of a whistleblower complaint from former Real Estate Director Christina Hendrickson, who was fired shortly after making the complaint.

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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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