Rural Alaska

North Slope mayor fires police chief and assistant attorney

In a single day this month, the North Slope Borough lost an assistant attorney and its police chief when they were fired by the administration.

Both were mayoral appointees rather than classified employees of the borough, meaning they could be terminated from their positions at the will of the mayor "without cause," as outlined in borough code.

Police Chief Travis Welch was let go on March 7. As the Arctic Sounder previously reported, Alaska Police Standards Council Executive Director Bob Griffiths said he was informed of the decision and given the following reason: "The North Slope Borough Mayor decided to go with different leadership."

When contacted by the Sounder, Welch said he was honored to have served in his position but said he did not wish to comment further for the story.

Assistant borough attorney Laura Russell was terminated on the same day. Her firing came just one day after she had written to borough leadership to let them know she had come forward with allegations of workplace discrimination.

In an email to Mayor Harry Brower, chief administrative officer Deano Olemaun and Borough Attorney Felipe Farley on March 6, Russell said she had attempted to speak with "Ken Robbins about these issues but he refused to talk to me on a timely basis."

Ken Robbins is the adviser to the North Slope Borough mayor.

"This email is to notify you that I have spoken with the Human Rights Commission regarding workplace discrimination and retaliation and they are working with me on this complaint," Russell wrote. "I will also be contacting the EEOC (Equal Opportunity Employment Commission) regarding these issues."

Just hours after sending the email, her borough account access was terminated, Russell noted in an online post she later deleted. In the same post, she described the issues as both sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

When contacted by the Sounder, Russell declined to comment for the story.

[With firing of North Slope police chief, another vacancy arises on Alaska's Marijuana Control Board]

Complaints registered with the State Commission for Human Rights remain confidential until they have moved through the initial evaluation process.

"First we get the inquiry. The investigator assesses whether there has been an act of discrimination under Alaska Statute 1880. If so, then they draft a complaint. Once the complainant signs that, then the respondent is served and asked to provide a position statement," said Commission Executive Director Marti Buscaglia. "Then it comes to me, as the head of the agency, to decide whether I'm going to send it through mediation or straight to the investigations process. We offer mediation on almost every case unless it's a public policy issue or if it's a very egregious complaint, for example, certain types of sexual harassment I wouldn't send to mediation."

If both parties agree to mediation, that's where they end up. If one does not want to go into mediation, it goes on to investigation.

"It's an informal process, but our investigators will interview witnesses on both sides, for both complainant and respondent. They will request documents from both sides and they will assess the evidence and make a determination of what we call substantial evidence, which means that there's enough to proceed with the case," she said. "If it's not substantial evidence, then the case is closed. If it's substantial evidence then it goes to one of the attorneys or myself to review the determination, and then it goes into conciliation where we try to resolve the dispute between both parties."

If conciliation fails, the commission has 45 days to decide whether or not to go to hearing before an administrative law judge. The judge would make a recommendation and then the seven commissioners, who have the final say, would decide whether or not to adopt the recommendation or revise it.

For confidentiality reasons, the Sounder could not confirm at which stage of the process Russell's complaint currently stands.

Neither Mayor Brower nor CAO Olemaun responded to requests for comment from the Sounder on the termination of either employee, nor did they respond to requests for interviews on alleged discrimination or retaliation.

Another borough spokesperson did not comment directly on the terminations or allegations, but cited the borough code pertaining to mayoral appointees' terms of employment.