Management of the Anchorage Public Library under Mayor Dave Bronson is drawing a new wave of scrutiny after an exodus of employees and a series of employee complaints about a politically appointed manager. Current and former employees say a toxic work environment is driving them away, and one is accusing the manager of making racist statements about Alaska Natives and derogatory comments about other groups.
The director of a municipal office in Anchorage in charge of preventing discrimination and harassment was fired shortly after starting an investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace within the city’s library system under Bronson appointee Judy Eledge. An official with the Bronson administration said the firing wasn’t related to complaints about the library.
In April, former library Assistant Director Jacob Cole wrote an email to the then-director of the city’s Office of Equal Opportunity listing troubling things he said Eledge had said to him. The email was first reported by Alaska Public Media, and Cole shared it with the Anchorage Daily News.
In his email, Cole reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity that Eledge said to him, “If it weren’t for the white man and his oil the natives would still be living in caves … .” Cole’s email detailed additional disparaging comments he said Eledge made about Alaska Natives and other groups. She complained about “white guilt and white apologists,” he wrote.
“The things that Judy Eledge has said that have shocked and disturbed me are many but these are the ones I can best remember,” Cole wrote in the email.
Eledge complained about books about transgender children, he wrote, and “said that parents were filling their heads with dangerous thoughts … She said that there were too many liberals working in libraries and that we could not make a fair and balanced collection because of our biases.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Eledge said she had no comment, and referred questions to Bronson administration officials. The mayor’s communications director would not address the accusations.
“The Mayor’s Office takes seriously all allegations of harassment in the workplace,” spokesman Corey Allen Young said in an email. “We will not be commenting further on these alleged personnel matters.”
Cole left his position at the library in May and has since taken a position out of state, he said, in part because of the managerial dysfunction he experienced under Eledge’s leadership.
Since Eledge began heading the library, first as its director and then after stepping down to become its deputy director, complaints from employees about the library’s leadership have poured in — to Assembly members, to the city’s recently fired director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and to the city’s ombudsman, Darrel Hess.
[Earlier coverage: Still lacking a director, Anchorage Public Library draws scrutiny over board discussion of ‘inappropriate literature’]
“I’ve never seen that many employees in one department make these types of allegations,” said Hess, who has served a decade in his role and said he has heard allegations raised by eight library employees since the start of Eledge’s tenure
Library board seeks answers on ‘staff exodus’
The email describing the racist remarks surfaced as officials were already raising concerns about the library. The chair of the Anchorage Assembly said members are likely to raise questions about management during a pre-scheduled Friday work session on staffing issues at the department.
In a letter obtained by the Daily News, the Library Advisory Board said that Eledge misrepresented the extent of staffing shortages and that the administration’s lack of communication is hampering its work.
In the May 15 letter sent to Bronson and Municipal Manager Amy Demboski, advisory board chair Cristy Willer said the group wasn’t able to fulfill its responsibilities under the municipal charter because of a lack of information from the administration.
“Members of the public have expressed concern regarding what is perceived as a staff exodus from the library. Some have even implied that vacancies are being intentionally left unfilled,” Willer wrote. “These allegations are quite concerning, and the LAB has had no specific data to either refute or support them.”
After the board asked for library staffing information from Eledge, she provided data in March that was nine months old, undercounting the degree to which critical positions in the library system are not filled, Willer said. According to the board’s calculations, at least 24 positions were vacant, including from among senior management, she said.
The Anchorage library system has an outsized influence on local branches all around Alaska, Cole said. With no advanced degree program in library sciences, many staff from communities around the state rely on trainings and conferences drawing on the experience of Anchorage personnel.
Since taking office, Bronson has twice appointed political allies to head the department. Neither were confirmed by the Assembly, and both did not meet minimum qualifications in the city’s job description, including Eledge, a longtime ally of Bronson’s. Just over a month after Bronson tapped her for library director, Eledge resigned in the face of Assembly criticism over her lack of a library science degree.
But for nine months, Eledge, president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club, has effectively been the most senior employee at the library, working as deputy director in the absence of a permanent leader. At the end of April, the administration announced that it selected Robert Hudson to helm Anchorage libraries. He is expected to begin work in August, according to Young.
During an unsuccessful run for an Anchorage School Board seat last year, Eledge drew scrutiny over a series of controversial social media posts, including one that denounced mask-wearing and made light of corporal punishment as a parenting tool. One post said, “How sad people of color seem to have no self esteem! If so why all the focus on color?” Other posts made inflammatory comments about LGBTQ issues. At the time, Eledge claimed that some of the screenshots of her posts that were circulating on social media had been altered but offered no evidence and refused to say which ones, or how they had been changed.
‘They didn’t trust HR’
In March, two library employees first brought their complaints directly to Hess, who then met with the employees in person.
The employees “alleged a hostile work environment and harassments due to the actions of the Deputy Director,” and said they had documents and recordings to support their allegations, Hess wrote in a summary of the complaints.
The staff members also provided the names of other employees who would speak about the same issues, according to the summary.
But the employees refused to follow the usual route for addressing such concerns, which entails bringing the complaints to the city’s human resources department, Hess said. The department’s director is Niki Tshibaka, who is married to Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka.
“In this instance, the employees absolutely did not want to go to HR, because the director is pretty active and vocal politically. They didn’t trust HR,” Hess said.
[Anchorage Assembly postpones vote on process to remove a mayor for ‘breach of public trust’]
After meeting with the two employees, Hess referred them to the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, which investigates federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints in Alaska.
“What the employees were alleging was harassment and a hostile work environment under the EEOC so I thought it would be better to have an enforcement agency look at it,” he said.
Hess said he also spoke with Heather MacAlpine, who at the time served as the director of the city’s Office of Equal Opportunity, and referred the employees to her as an alternate option. The Office of Equal Opportunity works to resolve issues informally before they are brought to a compliance agency, he said.
Hess and MacAlpine visited the library in early May and spoke with employees, and multiple staff members raised the same or similar allegations, Hess said.
Soon after starting an investigation into the complaints from library employees about policies and behavior from Eledge — and just about one week after her visit to the library — MacAlpine was abruptly terminated.
MacAlpine didn’t respond to an interview request Tuesday, and earlier declined to speak with Alaska Public Media, pointing to advice from her attorney. In the April email exchange with Cole outlining the derogatory remarks, MacAlpine called the allegations “very disturbing.”
Young said MacAlpine’s termination was not related to Eledge or the library, but offered no further details.
In a brief phone conversation Tuesday, Eledge said she had not read the Alaska Public Media story, did not plan to, and declined to comment on allegations about the racist statements.
“I’m busy trying to run a library,” Eledge said, adding that questions should go to Young or Demboski.
Concerns about rebuilding staff
In its memo, the Library Advisory Board also took umbrage with the administration’s decision to close the system’s flagship Loussac Library on Sundays beginning in May, a change that was announced earlier this year. That happened without consulting with or informing the body before news appeared in a public press release. Likewise, Willer said the administration had not involved the board at all in the search for a new library director.
The Anchorage Assembly is looking into staffing issues at the library under Eledge’s leadership, and had already scheduled a work session on the subject set for this Friday.
“If you can’t keep staff, and you can’t keep the library open on Sundays, which is what the community wants, that’s a pretty big problem,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance.
The work session, LaFrance said, presents an opportunity for the Assembly to hear from the administration on management and will likely involve questions related to Eledge’s purported remarks, as well as the swift firing of MacAlpine.
“I think it’s always concerning when a longtime civil servant is abruptly terminated. Especially concerning some of the things we heard about the library,” LaFrance said. “Definitely this is a worrisome and disturbing pattern that we’re seeing so many municipal employees leave.”
The concerns about staffing and the closure of the Loussac Library on Sundays have been raised by multiple donors and community members, said Kim Hays, president of the Anchorage Library Foundation’s board of trustees.
“It takes years and years to build up a really good staff and it can be decimated in minutes as people leave, because it’s going to take years to build up that institutional knowledge again,” Hays said.
Based on the concerns and number of vacancies, “it doesn’t appear to be that there’s enough staff to operate some of our branches effectively,” she said.
At the most recent meeting of the Anchorage Library Foundation’s board, Eledge reported 23 vacancies, with 11 pending hires, Hays said.
The Sunday closure of the Loussac also seemed abrupt to some donors, Hays said. Many people — such as high school and college students, families with children and people experiencing homelessness seeking access to critical resources — used that branch on Sundays, she said.
Hays said she wasn’t aware of employee allegations about Eledge until reading Alaska Public Media’s report Tuesday morning. Her worry has further deepened, and Hays is now concerned with a “chilling effect” that any resulting investigation may have on donors and hiring, she said.
Hess called the allegations from current and former library employees “serious” and said he believes that “anybody connected with the municipality would have been troubled” by them.
“I am sorry to see a lot of hard-working, dedicated employees that I’ve worked with over the years — that I’m acquainted with and that I’ve witnessed their commitment to the library and to the municipality and to the public — I’m sorry to see them leave,” Hess said. “I think it’s a loss for our community.”
Now that he has a new job and is no longer living in Alaska, Cole said he felt able to speak publicly about problems at the department. Many others who remain on staff are not in a similar position.
“They still work there. They’re worried about their jobs or being passed up for a promotion,” Cole said.