Puppet Master Robert Marbut
When he ran for Anchorage mayor, David Bronson, along with his pro-Bronson Save Anchorage supporters, made the topic of homelessness a divisive one.
Bronson’s campaign platform included extensively monitoring the city’s homeless population, and even increasing drug arrests around Anchorage to crack down on those who sleep on the streets. He posted photos of homeless encampments while pledging to sweep “vagrants” out of Anchorage’s business districts.
Bronson’s campaign website, which is no longer available, stated that those who “chose” to live a homeless lifestyle would not be allowed to ruin Anchorage’s businesses and neighborhoods. “They will be removed from our parks, public streets, and our business and residential areas,” the now defunct website stated.
During the Alaska Young Republicans Mayoral Debate, Bronson said that “you can’t criminalize homelessness,” citing a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court. The ultimate ruling didn’t come from the 9th circuit court however, it came from the Supreme Court of the United States but didn’t stop Bronson from inventing other means to incarcerate the homeless.
“You can take people into custody, you can cite them for other things,” said Bronson who added that once Anchorage’s most vulnerable once were “in the system,” individuals would then have to make a decision as to whether they would get better in a jail cell or some other proven program. It’s not clear what proven program Mr. Bronson was specifically referring to or how existing programs might cope with a sudden influx of clients.
Bronson, who later went on to clinch the mayorship, did so with the “help” of outside right-wing consulting firm Axiom Strategies, who called the shots for his campaign — handling messaging, strategy, guidance and polling. After becoming mayor, Bronson hired right-wing zealot and former Trump appointee Robert Marbut to consult on homelessness. Marbut had been removed from his position as executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in February.
Marbut has called for large-scale shelters with treatment facilities where people experiencing homelessness must “earn” their right to beds within shelters. In his role as a “homelessness consultant” to cities, Marbut called for cities to stop “enabling” homelessness by providing free meals, which he has referred to as “street feeding,” and has discouraged allowing people to sleep in public spaces. He has endorsed expanding law enforcement’s authority to arrest people experiencing homelessness for violating minor ordinances. Some of this likely sounds familiar to those who have been paying attention to statements made by the Bronson Administration or those who support him.
Marbut is also a critic of many communities’ “housing first” policies, which encourage providing permanent homes as the first step in addressing homelessness. Housing First, says the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “is a proven strategy that prioritizes finding safe, stable, accessible housing for people experiencing homelessness before addressing other problems, like substance abuse or untreated mental health issues.”
An 8 page draft handout distributed by Marbut to attendees of an August 6 meeting held in Anchorage on the topic of homelessness states that fencing should be added around shelter facilities.
Last week, perhaps indicative of Marbut’s influence, fencing was installed around the Sullivan Arena even as the shelter’s operator told Alaska Public Media they were unaware the fence was to be installed, although a city spokesperson insisted in an email that the operator was told and that clients and neighbors requested a fence for security.
In addition to leaning on the radical homelessness recommendations of Marbut, the Anchorage Health Department hired Dave D’Amato to replace Nicole Lebo, a respected employee of the Health Department who was fired from her role as Human Services Division Manager last week.
D’Amato is a longtime active member of the pro-Bronson Save Anchorage Facebook group whose members have engaged in breathtaking disinformation campaigns related to covid, vaccines and homelessness. D’Amato has previously worked as Homeless Coordinator for United Way, a position that turned out to be very short-term — roughly four months.
In July last year, D’Amato authored and uploaded a Microsoft Word document to the Save Anchorage Facebook group.
The document, described by D’Amato as a “testimony fact sheet,” was, according to the document, intended to be converted to an opinion article and might possibly be submitted to news organizations about lessons learned after public testimony on AO’s 58 and 66 were given in front of the Anchorage Assembly last year.
The fact sheet, still available in the Save Anchorage Facebook group, states in part that the Muni’s proposed building purchases intended to help the homeless were “likely illegal under the CARES Act guidance,” and opined that if the purchases were found to be illegal, the city would have to pay back the money, leaving property taxpayers “on the hook.”
Last year, members of Save Anchorage contacted the U.S. Treasury Department alleging that the use of CARES Act money to purchase the buildings was illegal. A large number of arguably misguided and non-factual assertions in the complaints related to how Anchorage used CARES money likely drew federal attention to Alaska when it was announced that the U.S. Department of the Treasury planned to review the state’s use of coronavirus relief funding.
The U.S. Treasury Department ultimately gave the city two paths to purchase the buildings with coronavirus relief fund money.
D’Amato’s fact sheet also asserts that Assembly Members Dunbar, Zaletel, and Rivera do not believe that any person currently homeless should be incarcerated, even if that person has committed a crime and alleges former Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz might resort to charges of “racism” if anyone dared to oppose the city’s homeless plan.
Posts and comments made to Save Anchorage bearing D’Amato’s name refer to the Anchorage Assembly as the “ASSembly,” accusing the body of actively working to destroy the city. D’Amato called for a boycott of businesses and services of the “ASSembly and their enablers,” in one such post. A January 12 post made to Save Anchorage hypothesized whether the group could get a list of those who defended “Fexlix” Rivera to cross-reference against the Recall Dunleavy petition.
In an October comment made to Save Anchorage this year, D’Amato referred to former Acting Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson as “Ass-ton QD.” In a separate comment made to the group, he referred to Anchorage Assembly Member Meg Zaletel as a member of the “hateful eight,” and has called Felix Rivera a “name calling, non listening, power abusing disgrace,” writing that Rivera represented a “direct threat” to the safety of Anchorage businesses and residents.
In a January comment made to Save Anchorage, D’Amato wrote that he had worked in the “non-profit homelessness industrial complex” and “rescued a neighborhood from homelessness, crime and drugs,” and opined that contributing to non-profits, especially those that are committed to extending homelessness, destroying neighborhoods and lives all while in an unethical relationship with the government enabler’s, is the worst possible thing an individual can do with their money and for the community.
“Starve the beast and force change through neighborhood centric action,” D’Amato wrote in his comment.
How We Got Here
Per Municipal Code 3.30.173, “executive positions by their nature and complexity are not subject to the normal procedures of recruitment and selection applicable to other classified positions.”
Most people conceive of directors of departments or general managers of public utilities as executive roles in the Municipality of Anchorage. It’s understandable that a mayor needs individuals who share their vision to assist them get things done. However, there is a check in place to prevent corrupt or inept executive appointments, and as we’ve seen with some of Mayor Dave Bronson’s choices — department-head executive posts require Assembly approval.
However, over time, more and more roles below that level within the MOA, such as department division managers and public information officers, have been reclassified as executives. Importantly, these do not require Assembly approval, allowing any mayor to pick anybody they like, regardless of their previous expertise, social media history, or potential conflicts of interest. New mayors haven’t traditionally replaced good executives below the director level with cronies and benefactors. Dave Bronson, on the other hand, has embraced appointing whoever he wants to these positions as a way to circumvent the Assembly.
We saw this after the Assembly rejected unqualified Bronson appointee Sami Graham for the library director position, who was then made the mayor’s chief of staff. We saw this when Mayor Bronson, recognizing the imminent Assembly rejection of unqualified social media racist Judy Eledge as library director, moved her to an open position of library deputy director, which doesn’t require Assembly approval.
After Jim Winegarner was bounced by the Assembly as real estate director, he was immediately hired back to a new position as Bronson’s real estate policy director.
With Bronson’s irresponsible response to COVID-19 as a focus of his campaign, this type of executive hire has hit the Anchorage Health Department especially hard. Joe Gerace narrowly won Assembly approval despite complaints about past workplace conduct, but directly below Gerace is a whole new roster of faces whose qualifications are suspect.
Gone are Dr. Bruce Chandler, chief medical officer, Janet Johnston, an epidemiologist, and Christy Lawton, the public health division manager, all of whom technically resigned but were likely forced out due to disagreements stemming from Bronson’s COVID-19 policies. Fired was Nicole Lebo, a human services manager who worked on homelessness and housing issues for the last two years. Public information officer Chelsea Ward-Waller resigned for a new opportunity.
To the detriment of public health, Bronson has replaced them with questionable picks that don’t have to face the sunshine of Assembly scrutiny. Retired pediatrician Michael Savitt is AHD’s chief medical officer/epidemiologist, somehow replacing the expertise of both Chandler and Johnston despite having no experience in infectious diseases or epidemiology. Savitt was recently rebuked by the Alaska chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics for COVID misinformation. Lawton’s position remains unfilled. Ward-Waller has been replaced by former TV reporter Robert McNiely, who testified before the Assembly that he was fired for refusing the COVID vaccine because of a pre-existing condition.
Now, Dave D’Amato is in at the AHD immediately after the firing of Lebo and after Bronson’s bungling of the homeless shelter issue put people at risk of freezing to death.
Incredibly, the Anchorage Health Department released two photographs of a “fully functional” warming tent (that for unknown reasons, the city seemed unprepared to set up) on Saturday depicting a bundled Mayor Bronson with ice and snow visible on the ground. The photographs raised alarm among those concerned for Anchorage’s homeless population and didn’t exactly convey Mayor Bronson’s alleged “compassionate” vision for the unhoused.
Last night, newly named interim executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness Meg Zaletel told me that after concerns were raised about the temperature at the “fully operational” warming tent, the temperature was raised and is now reported to be between 60-65 degrees.
Is D’Amato qualified for his new job or is he just another one of Mayor Bronson’s many Save Anchorage anti-Assembly loyalists? Time will tell, but in light of Anchorage’s homelessness crisis, the Mayor might better serve our most vulnerable citizens by hiring and appointing individuals to important roles who don’t necessarily purport to despise members of the Anchorage Assembly.
The political divisiveness perpetuated by the Bronson Administration isn’t helping those who need it the most.