City removes Anchorage HR director from library staff complaint investigations after concerns over ‘I’m with Judy’ T-shirt
By Emily Goodykoontz
The city is removing Anchorage Human Resources Director Niki Tshibaka from any involvement with personnel complaints filed by public library staff. Instead, the municipal attorney’s office will oversee investigations into complaints, according to a memo from the city’s ombudsman, Darrel Hess.
Multiple library staff members over the last several months have said they are hesitant to file complaints with the human resources department, Hess said in the memo, which he sent to all library employees on Monday. Several library employees believe that the department would not investigate their concerns “thoroughly, fairly, and impartially,” he said.
To address library staff concerns about the human resources department under Tshibaka’s leadership, Hess gave four recommendations to the mayor’s office. All have been implemented, he said. Tshibaka will be “walled off” from involvement with library personnel complaints, putting the municipal attorney’s office in charge of those investigations. Tshibaka also will no longer be part of library hiring panels, Hess said. The final recommendation was to notify the employees of the changes. The memo was first reported by the Alaska Landmine in a social media post.
The mayor’s office did not answer questions from the Daily News about its reasons for the decision. A spokesman said only that the administration “has complied with the recommendations.”
The decision to pull Tshibaka from library matters follows a tangle of controversy surrounding the public institution: an exodus of employees, a series of library staff complaints about its politically-appointed manager, the city’s firing of the Office of Equal Opportunity director, who had been investigating the complaints, and Tshibaka later wearing T-shirt to a board meeting that said, “I’m with Judy,” referring to the library manager, Deputy Director Judy Norton Eledge,
Several current and former library staff members have said Eledge has created a hostile work environment. Some have accused Eledge of making racist statements about Alaska Natives and derogatory comments about other groups. In June, some of those accusations were published in an Alaska Public Media report.
About eight or 10 library employees had brought their complaints to the ombudsman’s office, circumventing the usual process in the Human Resources Department. At the time, they told Hess that they did not trust the department because its director is active and vocal in politics, Hess said. Tshibaka is the husband of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka.
When Tshibaka wore the T-shirt at a June Library Advisory Board meeting, their concerns deepened.
“Regardless of what his intention was, the perception of many of those employees was that he was expressing personal support of Judy Eledge. I think that intensified their perception or their concern that their complaints might not be handled fairly and impartially,” Hess said in an interview.
Tshibaka was criticized for the move on social media and by some Assembly members. Three members of the public lodged complaints with the Office of the Ombudsman, Hess said.
Hess said he reached out to the administration expressing his concerns over the employee mistrust in a key city department and made some suggestions.
“The administration, I believe, had also reached similar conclusions independently. So it was like a meeting of the minds,” Hess said. “Sometimes appearance is everything. Perception is everything. Sometimes our office recommends making changes to processes or policies based on the perception of the public and the perception of employees. How can you clarify and how can you craft them so the employees or the public have reassurance that things are fair and equitable?”
Hess said he has “a lot of confidence” in the Human Resources department’s labor relations staff, which conducts investigations.
“I never saw any evidence or anything to indicate that there was any undue influence on any investigation of any library complaints,” Hess said.
Those staff members will still conduct investigations, but oversight of those now rests with the municipal attorney’s office, he said. The city made the changes about three weeks ago, he said.
Heather MacAlpine, the fired director of the city office charged with preventing discrimination and harassment, is suing the city for wrongful termination, hinging much of her complaint on Tshibaka and the T-shirt.
MacAlpine had launched an investigation into the allegations of a hostile workplace. She was fired about a week later. The mayor’s office has said her firing did not pertain to the library complaints or Eledge.
In her lawsuit, MacAlpine asserted that the Tshibaka’s shirt demonstrates that he is not impartial, fair or objective when it comes to complaints about the library’s manager.
Since Mayor Dave Bronson took office last year, the city library has become a flashpoint between the conservative mayor and the city’s moderate-to-liberal Assembly majority. Twice, Bronson has appointed library directors who did not meet the minimum qualification standards for the position. The Anchorage Assembly rejected the first appointee, Sami Graham. Bronson’s second pick, Eledge, stepped down to deputy director and withdrew her name from Assembly consideration.
But in the continued absence of a permanent leader, Eledge has largely been running the library for nearly a year in a position that does not require a vote of confirmation from the Assembly.
Another person nominated by Bronson in April to head the public library, Robert Hudson, this month declined to take the job. Eledge remains in the library as deputy director, though the mayor’s office says that Municipal Manager Amy Demboski is the one in charge.
“As we have stated before, the Municipal Manager is overseeing the library,” Corey Allen Young, spokesman for Bronson, said in an email.
“The MOA will continue with the search to find a new Library Director as soon as possible,” Young said.