Judge rules that some city records about resigned Anchorage health director should be made public even if they are “deeply embarrassing”

Judge rules that some city records about resigned Anchorage health director should be made public even if they are “deeply embarrassing”

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An Alaska Superior Court judge issued a split ruling Thursday in an appeal filed by the Anchorage Council, calling on the court to release two documents from an internal city investigation into its hiring of a former health department director.

Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi said in his ruling that one document is protected by attorney-client privilege, a September 2022 memo from the city’s deputy director of human resources to the former acting city attorney. Guidi said the other document, a January 2023 memo, was not immune from public disclosure as city attorneys claimed.

Joe Gerace resigned as city health director in 2022 after an investigation by Alaska Public Media and American Public Media revealed that he fabricated or exaggerated significant parts of his resume.

Last February, Mayor Dave Bronson refused to release documents from Geras’ internal investigation after council leaders issued a subpoena.

Bronson and then-acting city attorney Blair Christensen argued that the documents were protected as personnel records and that releasing them would violate city code. They also said it would violate employees’ constitutionally protected privacy rights.

Parliament then authorized its lawyers to ask the courts to force the government to publicly release the reports.

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

Guidy ruled that the report did not involve normally protected information such as pay stubs, medical files or Equal Rights Commission documents. Posting it also wouldn’t constitute an invasion of privacy, he said.

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“The fact that the information may be highly embarrassing does not mean that it is private,” Guidy said in her decision.

He said there was no doubt the investigation could yield information that would be deeply embarrassing for Geras and the public officials tasked with scrutinizing him.

“But while it may be embarrassing, the city’s findings will be informative from the perspective of citizens’ rights to know how their government is functioning,” Guidi said.

However, the September report “generally constitutes confidential attorney-client communications protected by attorney-client privilege,” he said.

It’s unclear when or if the Bronson administration or the court will release the January report. The government and parliament have 10 days to file a motion to reconsider the judge’s decision.

Whether the court will order that one of the records must be unsealed depends on the outcome of any motion for reconsideration or further appeals, Gieddy said.

Assembly President Christopher Constant praised the court’s ruling in a statement Thursday night and called on Bronson to release both records immediately. He said Bronson had the option to waive attorney-client privilege over the September memo.

Constant said: “After a year of judicial proceedings, the truth has emerged and today the court’s ruling confirms what Parliament has always said: that public leaders are accountable to the public.”

Veronica Hoxey, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, declined to answer questions about the court’s decision. She said the government was still reviewing the court’s ruling and had “no answers” to questions at this time.

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