Judge rules some city records about retired Anchorage health department director must be public, even if they are ‘highly embarrassing’

Judge rules some city records about retired Anchorage health department director must be public, even if they are ‘highly embarrassing’

An Alaska Supreme Court judge issued a split ruling Thursday in an appeal by the Anchorage Assembly, which asked the court to release two documents in an internal city investigation into the hiring of a former principal. of the health department.

In the ruling, Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi said one document is protected by attorney-client privilege — a September 2022 memo from the city’s deputy human resources director to a former acting municipal prosecutor. The other document, a January 2023 memo, is not protected from public disclosure as city attorneys claimed, Guidi said.

Joe Gerace resigned as the city’s health director in 2022 after an investigation by Alaska Public Media and American Public Media found he fabricated or exaggerated important parts of his resume.

Mayor Dave Bronson, in February of last year, refused to release the documents of the internal investigation into Gerace after Assembly leaders issued a subpoena.

Bronson and Acting City Attorney Blair Christensen argued that the documents were protected as personnel records and that releasing them would be against city code. They also said it would violate employees’ constitutionally protected privacy rights.

The Assembly then authorized its lawyers to ask the court to compel the administration to publish the reports.

At the time, Assembly leaders were frustrated – they had reviewed the January 2023 report in a closed-door session with former human resources director Niki Tshibaka, and said it revealed little new information or details that were not already public.

Guidi ruled that the report did not include normally protected information, such as payroll, medical records or equal rights commission files. And its release also does not constitute an invasion of privacy, he said.

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“The mere fact that information may be highly embarrassing does not make it private,” Guidi said in the ruling.

There is no doubt that the investigation could yield very embarrassing information for Gerace and the public officials responsible for vetting him, he said.

“But as embarrassing as it is, from the point of view of the citizens’ right to know how their government works, the outcome of the Municipality’s investigation would be very informative,” Guidi said.

However, the September report, “in its entirety, constitutes a confidential attorney-client communication protected by the attorney-client privilege,” he said.

It is unclear when or if the Bronson administration or the court will release the January report. The administration and the Assembly have 10 days to request a review of the judge’s decision.

Whether the court will order that each record be unsealed depends on the outcome of any motion for reconsideration or further appeal, Guidi said.

Assembly Speaker Christopher Constant, in a statement Thursday evening, praised the court’s decision and called for Bronson to immediately release both recordings. Bronson may choose to waive the attorney-client privilege of the September memo, he said.

“After a year of court proceedings to bring the truth to light, today the Court decided to confirm what the Assembly has affirmed all along: public leaders are responsible to the public,” said Constant.

Veronica Hoxie, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, declined to answer questions about the court’s decision. The administration is still reviewing the court’s decision and is “unable to answer” questions at this time, she said.

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