Anchorage’s former real estate director has filed a lawsuit against Mayor Dave Bronson and the city for what she says was a retaliatory termination after she filed a whistleblower’s complaint against the administration.
Christina Hendrickson worked briefly in Bronson’s administration after being appointed in July as director of real estate and confirmed by the Assembly in August. She was fired last month.
Last month, as first reported by the Alaska Landmine, Hendrickson sent a whistleblower complaint to members of the Anchorage Assembly. The day after Hendrickson sent the complaint, Bronson announced Jim Winegarner would replace her, and she was formally fired the following day. The complaint alleges that the administration violated city code, wasted public money and abused its power when it hired Winegarner, now appointed as the city’s real estate director.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office declined to comment on the complaint and said that the mayor’s office isn’t commenting on cases under litigation.
Hendrickson filed a lawsuit Tuesday in state Superior Court seeking over $100,000 in compensatory damages, and she’s additionally seeking punitive damages, costs and attorney’s fees. The suit names the city, Bronson and Adam Trombley — the city’s director of economic and community development and Hendrickson’s supervisor — as defendants. Hendrickson’s annual salary as real estate director was $122,990.40.
The suit claims the Bronson administration and municipality violated a section of city code that prohibits retaliation against employees who report on matters of public concern, such as filing a whistleblower complaint.
“Yet the (municipality) and the Bronson Administration did just that when they abruptly terminated Plaintiff after she reported both to her superiors and to Municipal Assembly members that the Municipality and the Bronson Administration had improperly attempted to place a high-salaried employee into an unfunded position that did not exist and had taken other actions that directly conflicted with (Anchorage Municipal Code),” the lawsuit states.
Because she filed the whistleblower complaint, Hendrickson lost her job and “is being vilified by the administration,” she alleges in the lawsuit.
Hendrickson said she had been trying to hire a land management officer with a $60,000 salary, rather than adding an unnecessary executive position to the department that would cost the city more than twice as much to perform a job that Hendrickson, as real estate director, was already doing.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Hendrickson’s efforts to hire a qualified Land Management Officer through the protocols set forth in the AMC collided with the Bronson Administration’s efforts to place Mr. Winegarner in a high-paying position in the Real Estate Department without following proper process or procedure,” the lawsuit says.
“There’s a procedure for hiring suitable and qualified candidates, and it’s not being followed,” Hendrickson said.
The whistleblower’s complaint and lawsuit allege that the Bronson administration hired Winegarner as acting chief housing officer, a position in the mayor’s office funded by the Rasmuson Foundation, which also must approve the candidate but had not approved Winegarner. It was a role that had previously been fulfilled by Robin Ward, the former real estate director, according to Hendrickson.
Soon after, “the Mayor’s office transferred Jim from their office to an open (position) in my department without approval ... placing him in a position for which he is not qualified and for which another candidate was selected from a series of interviews,” Hendrickson said in the complaint.
Then, the mayor also gave him the title of executive director of the Heritage Land Bank, a position for which there was no identified funding in the city budget, and a role that Hendrickson and the two previous real estate directors had fulfilled for efficiency and to save the city money, Hendrickson said.
“The method by which the Mayor’s office hired, funded, transferred and is trying to fund Jim violates multiple codes and is fiduciarily irresponsible,” she said in the complaint.
The Municipality of Anchorage “unilaterally placed Mr. Winegarner in the position, even though he had never applied for it, much less demonstrated that he possessed the requisite qualifications for the position, and then modified the position to include the role of Executive Director of the Heritage Land Bank without required supporting documentation,” which is required in city code, the lawsuit says.
That section of code states that the Heritage Land Bank advisory commission should recommend suitable candidates to the mayor and Assembly. The two previous real estate directors had obtained approval from the commission to fulfill that role, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that after consulting with Craig Campbell, Bronson’s former chief of staff and current director of policy and programs, Trombley told Hendrickson that Winegarner would be the executive director of the Heritage Land Bank and that they would find funding for the position because it was a campaign promise.
Hendrickson sent the whistleblower complaint to Assembly members on Sept. 15.
“I never dreamed that I would be faced with looking at another executive director and in my org chart,” Hendrickson said. “I would have been supportive of it, if it had been done correctly.”
The next day, according to the lawsuit, the mayor’s office named Winegarner as the new real estate director in a press release, Hendrickson was locked out of her work email and her laptop was taken by human resources personnel. On Sept. 17, Hendrickson received notice of her formal termination in an email to her private account, according to the lawsuit and a copy of the notice.
The termination letter does not cite a reason for Hendrickson’s firing, but notes that Hendrickson serves at the pleasure of the mayor.
“As a Director of Real Estate with the Real Estate Department, you are aware that your position is an executive position and serves at the pleasure of the Mayor,” the letter states.
The Assembly must still confirm Winegarner as real estate director and is slated to hold a work session about his appointment on Wednesday.
“Never in the world did I think that I would get fired. I never thought I would, because the Whistleblower Act protects me,” Hendrickson said.