Armstrong III

Clifford Armstrong III during a streaming press conference on Sunday.





Clifford Armstrong III had served as the chief equity officer in the newly minted Office of Equity and Justice less than six months before new mayor Dave Bronson informed him of his removal and replacement. 

He wasn't particularly enthused about the decision, and neither was the Assembly, which passed the Berkowitz-era ordinance and confirmed Armstrong, 9-1 back in April.

“I assume my work will continue in the same way, regardless of who the mayor is,” Armstrong told Carlos Matías of Sol De Medianoche, shortly after Bronson's election. “When people take the time to understand the details of what the actual job is and how it is done, it is usually hard to disagree as to its purpose.”

“The pandemic has exposed persistent structural inequities that have required municipal response to mitigate the disproportionate social determinants of health and equity facing people of color and low-income residents,” Berkowitz wrote in July of the creation of the office and the position Amstrong was later hired to fill. “The Office of Equity and Justice and the Chief Equity Officer will focus on identifying and ensuring equal opportunities for health and wellbeing for all residents, particularly in response to the impacts of the pandemic.”

Armstrong had been living in and working for the city of Tacoma, Washington, for about four years, crafting policy focused on equitable hiring practices and workforce development. His ‘Equity in Contracting’ initiative became a model adopted by other localities within Washington aimed at improving “contracting processes that would achieve proportionate representation among workers hired from economically distressed areas of Tacoma and adjacent areas.”

Contrary to pedaled narratives barked via conservative blogs, Armstrong is not from Washington; he grew up in Southern California, attended grad school in Oklahoma, and spent time in Central America before landing the Tacoma gig.

“My wife grew up in Homer. I have a father-in-law and his wife who own a business here in town. My mother-in-law is in Anchorage,” Armstrong told attendees of an Alaska Black Caucus (ABC) meeting streamed online over the weekend. “We moved up here because we wanted to be close to family.”

He conceded that the timing of the job posting was fortuitous, but he was already in the process of selling his home, fielding the first couple of interviews in an empty house, mid-move.

“What was incredibly apparent at the time of the interviews and through the hiring process was Clifford had a background of experience in really doing the direct, exact, local government work to bring equity policies to bear on the actual proceedings of the government,” Assembly vice-chair, Christopher Constant, told caucus members. “Clifford proved very quickly that he was the right candidate to take over this position. We got really lucky. And then, of course, that was shortchanged.”

“Getting towards the end of September... we were going to start to have some very public conversations about a lot of the things that I had seen to that point,” Armstrong said. “I was really just trying to set up the position and the office well so that we can actually do the work that needs to be done over what I expected to be a four year period.”

Part of that process was creating a draft affirmative action plan for the municipality, outlining  “significant disparities in hiring practices for women, people of color, veterans, employees with disabilities” and “recommendations for how to address them,” Armstrong told KTUU's Rebecca Palsha and Elizabeth Roman last month. Federal regulations that translate to state and local funding are tied to hiring benchmarks aimed at reducing inequities that impact marginalized populations. As one example, hiring standards affecting disabled residents of Anchorage only met one out of 53 federally established goals. Veteran hire was also disproportionately low. The new administration did not welcome Armstrong's findings. Instead, three days after he shared his draft with Bronson's staff, he received notification of where the door was.

“They gave me the option of either resigning at that moment or taking the involuntary separation,” Armstrong told Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early. “They did not give cause.”

The ordinance passed last year, creating both the office and director position, stipulated that the chief equity officer would be appointed by the mayor with the concurrence of a majority of the assembly. “The chief equity officer may be dismissed by the mayor only for cause shown, and only with the concurrence of a majority of the assembly,” the law reads, meaning the Assembly would have to vote to approve or deny Armstrong's termination after being supplied with a reason for the termination.

Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance and vice-chair Constant sent a letter to Bronson, stating that, “We do not recognize Mr. Armstrong’s dismissal as complete nor valid and are advised by Assembly Counsel that it is not legally complete.... The burden is on a party challenging the ordinance or proceedings to demonstrate otherwise.” 

The letter set a deadline of October 27, which came and went with no response and requisite cricket noises. Bronson's communications director, Corey Allen Young, told KTUU that the administration intended to issue a response “by the end of the week.” 

More crickets.

Instead, Allen Young rebutted the Assembly's request for cause entirely, asserting that Article V, Section 2(a) of the Anchorage Charter grants the executive power to fire municipal department heads, who “serve at the pleasure of the mayor.” The Bronson administration contends that Assembly confirmation is limited to the hiring side of the transaction. Firing can be done unilaterally.

On Tuesday night, Bronson's Municipal Attorney, Patrick Bergt, released a statement on the mayor's Facebook page expounding on Allen Young's statement: “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. The express language of our Charter clearly, unequivocally, and unconditionally vests in the mayor the authority to remove mayoral executive appointees for any reason or for no reason.”

“We did something that is really rare in the municipality. We created a position that has a joint management authority between the executive and the legislative branch,” Constant noted. Only the Equal Rights Commission and the Internal Audit Office are similarly situated, and have largely escaped controversy for the prevailing decades. “Fast-forward about 40 years, here we are today. The mayor's office is making a claim that they have the singular authority to hire and select and keep and fire this position because it's a department head. They ignore the code. The code, as written, says that the position may only be fired for cause and the cause must be communicated from the mayor to the assembly, and a majority of the assembly must concur in order for that to take effect.”

Complicating matters, Bronson not only fired Armstrong; he also named his replacement. Uluao “Junior” Aumavae – a longtime Alaska resident and former NFL player who recently served as the Community Outreach Specialist for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Alaska – now occupies the office the mayor contends he has authority over and the Assembly maintains he does not.

“I feel really, really bad for Uluao 'Junior' Aumavae. The mayor is is essentially telling him he has a job that he can't have because there's no vacancy there,” Constant told the ABC attendees. “And while Mr. Aumavae is probably getting paid by the municipality, he's not the chief equity officer at this time. And that's no strike against him as a person. That's simply a message that process has to be followed and the code will be complied with.”

Armstrong agreed, noting that Aumavae would likely be a strong prospect as his successor.

 

“Obviously, from everything I've heard, he's a great person; a great community member,” he said. 

But strong community connections were not what got Armstrong hired. Crunching data, writing policy, and developing short- and long-term initiatives were the driving qualifications behind his selection. Implementing those recommendations is the next step – but can only be achieved if step one is bridged first. “If everything was in place and done well right now, I'd think that folks [like Aumavae] would be the people who would be preferable for the role.”

For now, the situation is less a separation of powers issue and more a war between conflicting branches of government claiming check-and-balance supremacy, with both Armstrong and Aumavae left awkwardly in the balance.

“If there were a vacancy, and the vacancy were properly filled, they would need to be confirmed [by the Assembly]. At this point, what is there to confirm?” Constant wondered aloud. “The position is filled. I'm not sure where the mayor is ultimately is going to find the money to pay for this executive assistant that he's effectively hired, but eventually it'll come out of his budget unless this is properly sorted in the courts.”

Armstrong, speaking with an understated, but present, hint of exhaustion, conveyed his concern for the work he was hired to do – which is currently not getting done.

 “There are some very real, tangible, material things that need to change and very real communities who have inequitable outcomes that they're experiencing,” he concluded. “In my absence, I'm concerned that all the things that I noticed won't necessarily be moved on. If they are, I'd be pleasantly surprised.”

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