With Anchorage’s mayor stepping down, a successor will be chosen Friday

Assembly chair Felix Rivera and Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson 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)

In announcing his resignation at Tuesday evening’s Assembly meeting, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz abdicated his position as the leader of the city to the chair of the Assembly, who will assume the mayorship on Oct. 23.

The current chair is Midtown Assemblyman Felix Rivera, who would become the first openly gay and first Latino mayor of Anchorage. But his position as chair could change before the mayor’s resignation goes into effect.

A motion to reorganize that was introduced by Assemblywoman Jamie Allard on Tuesday night failed 8-3. But Rivera called for a special Assembly meeting this Friday to discuss that issue.

Several Assembly members who were reached on Wednesday said that the election of a new chair is wide open.

“We’re all kind of processing still,” said Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar.

“I’d have to wait for the discussion at the meeting,” said Assemblyman John Weddleton, “I think we have a deep bench of people who could do a good job.”

Most members of the Assembly, including Weddleton and Dunbar, have been largely supportive of the mayor’s agenda in combating the spread of the coronavirus. That makes it likely that the mayor’s staff and policies would continue, regardless of who is elected.

“I think what we’re looking for someone who would be steady hand on and tiller, someone that focus on continuity of operations and get us through the current crisis,” said Dunbar.

Crystal Kennedy, who represents Eagle River and Chugiak and is a minority conservative voice on the Assembly, echoed that thought.

“It seems like everything the Assembly has been doing lately is just been stirring up so much drama, so I’m looking for somebody that can bring a little bit more of an even keel to the position” she said, adding that she would look for a “more experienced community member.”

Whoever it is, the new mayor could have emergency authority reduced, at least in the coming months. At Tuesday’s meeting, the Assembly also voted to shorten the time it was planning to extend the mayor’s emergency powers. Instead of an extension until the end of the year, the Assembly voted for an extension that lasts until the end of November

“It’s a very clear intent to transition away from an emergency type situation to a more normalized situation. And I think whoever comes into that position as acting Mayor needs to work hand in hand with the Assembly to make that happen,” said Rivera.

Rivera said that he’s ready to take up the mayorship, but that he’s not making any special preparations until after Friday’s decision.

“If the members decided that they want someone else to be chair and fulfill that role as acting mayor, then that is the time for the members to do so,” he said.

He said that at the meeting on Friday, other Assembly members may start to vie for the chairmanship if they so desire.

“People decide if they want to be in that position or not. They lobby other members, and then the vote happens,” he said.

He added that he did not expect any controversy during the election of a chair.

“This should be a normal, very political reorganization. This needs to be a reorganization focused on what’s best to move the city forward,” he said.

Dunbar, the only Assembly member who has announced their candidacy for mayor in the general election, said he hasn’t thought about whether or not he would vie for the chairmanship at Friday’s meeting.

Alaska’s Open Meetings Act prevents Assembly members from gathering in groups and discussing official business outside of formal meetings, though it’s unclear whether that applies directly to reorganization.

By municipal charter, a special election would need to be held “not less than 90 days” from the time of the vacancy of the mayor’s office. With the regularly-scheduled mayoral election set for April, the Assembly’s legal team is looking into whether it could extend the next mayor’s term until April order to save money and keep more stability in the administration.

“If we do the special election thing, we’re … going to have four elections within five months. And that’s expensive, it’s unbelievably confusing to voters, and I can’t imagine what kind of havoc that would require over the candidate’s life,” said Kennedy.

The Assembly clerk couldn’t provide an exact estimate of the cost of a special election, but most estimates suggest that it would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

Rivera said he didn’t expect to hear a conclusion to the legal question before Friday.

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