The former director of Anchorage’s Office of Equal Opportunity is suing the city for wrongful termination, and she says a t-shirt worn by the city’s Human Resources director at a recent meeting backs up her claims.
Heather MacAlpine was fired while investigating employee workplace complaints about the Anchorage Library’s deputy director, Judy Eledge. Last week at a Library Advisory Board meeting, HR Director Niki Tshibaka wore a black t-shirt that said in bold, white text, “I’m with Judy,” a reference to Eledge.
“The shirt was clearly intended to convey that Mr. Tshibaka had no interest in serving as an impartial HR representative who would listen fairly and objectively to employee complaints regarding Ms. Eledge,” says the complaint from MacAlpine’s attorneys.
According to the complaint, filed in superior court on Thursday, MacAlpine was fired on May 11 when she arrived at a meeting with HR that she thought was scheduled to go over library employees’ complaints about Eledge.
Employees told MacAlpine that Eledge made comments about Alaska Natives that employees found offensive, called a children’s book about drag queens “filth,” and said movements like Black Lives Matter are “killing libraries and this country,” according to the complaint.
Employees said Eledge also made comments in the workplace about one of her subordinates having Asperger’s Syndrome, and bragged that the city manager, Amy Demboski, said she would not fire Eledge, according to the complaint.
The complaint says that MacAlpine had met with HR employees previously, and one of them, Adan Garcia, had “felt compelled to tell Ms. Eledge ‘You can’t say that’” in response to some of her discriminatory comments. To date, HR has not conducted an “appropriate investigation” into the employees’ concern, according to the complaint.
At a public Library Advisory Board meeting last week, Tshibaka sat next to Eledge for most of the hour-long meeting. Video of the meeting shows Tshibaka wearing the “I’m with Judy” t-shirt. His daughter, Denali, was listed as teen liaison during the meeting and was also wearing an “I’m with Judy” t-shirt, the video shows.
Similar shirts were listed for sale on a conservative blog shortly after Alaska Public Media published a story detailing employees’ complaints about the workplace environment under Eledge and offensive comments they say she made.
Mayor Dave Bronson appointed Eledge as deputy director of library services last year, and she has served as acting director since then. In April, Bronson announced Robert Hudson as the new library director, but his office did not respond to a request about when Hudson will start.
Eledge is a former educator and longtime Republican Party insider. At an Assembly meeting in April, Bronson said that Eledge had his “undying and unquestioned support.”
Under Eledge, several library employees said they were not comfortable bringing complaints to HR because of the director’s outspoken political views, according to Ombudsman Darrel Hess.
“These employees were extremely adamant they did not want to go through HR,” Hess testified at an Assembly work session earlier this month. “They stated — they were very clear to me — they stated they did not trust HR, that the current director is very politically vocal and active and they were concerned that HR staff would feel pressured regarding any investigation.”
Tshibaka’s wife, Kelly Tshibaka, is running as a Republican for U.S. Senate.
At the time, Hess said he referred the workplace complaints to the Office of Equal Opportunity under MacAlpine, and the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission.
At the Library Advisory Board meeting, Eledge spoke about staffing concerns and addressed complaints about her management.
“I don’t think that I have created a hostile environment. And I think if you ask the majority of people around here, ‘Have I?’ I don’t — I haven’t given the demands to anyone. I haven’t thrown in books off the library shelf. I get accused all the time,” she said.
She said HR told her there were no written complaints filed against her. MacAlpine’s lawsuit claims at least four employees complained to HR about Eledge. Several employees have shared complaints made to HR with Alaska Public Media.
Before learning of MacAlpine’s lawsuit, Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said in a phone interview Thursday that he worried the HR director wearing an “I’m with Judy” t-shirt might increase the risk of an employee suing the city.
“It’s a little bit like if the victim showed up at a criminal trial and the judge showed up wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘The victim is lying,’” said Dunbar.
He said wearing the shirt might make it easier for a plaintiff to prove that there was bias by Human Resources, which is supposed to be an impartial investigator and enforcer in employment disputes.
Hess, the ombudsman, said in a phone call on Thursday that three people have complained to his office about the t-shirt. He said he’s likely to request an opinion from the city’s ethics board about whether wearing the shirt was appropriate.
MacAlpine is asking for at least $100,000 in damages, including lost wages and attorney’s fees.
Niki Tshibaka and the mayor’s office did not respond to questions about the lawsuit or about the t-shirt.