As hundreds of state employees began Thanksgiving week uncertain of whether they will keep their jobs under Gov.-elect Mike Dunleavy, his chief of staff said Monday, “No public servant should ever think that they are irreplaceable.”
More than 800 state workers — including political appointees such as department heads but also workers like criminal prosecutors, whose jobs are traditionally considered non-political — were informed Friday that they would have to submit a letter of resignation by Nov. 30. The list includes geologists and pharmacists, data systems specialists and petroleum engineers. Many will keep their jobs, said Tuckerman Babcock, incoming chief of staff for Dunleavy.
“Everyone is invited to stay in place until they hear otherwise," he said.
It is common for a new governor to oust department heads and commissioners when taking office. But with his call for resignations, Dunleavy cast a wider net than other recent governors. Among those receiving the letters are state employees who thought their jobs were relatively safe during a political transition, and are suddenly wondering if they will have a paycheck at the beginning of the new year.
Current prosecutors have talked of attempting to unionize, one state attorney said. It’s unknown when exactly employees will learn whether they will be able to keep their jobs as Dunleavy, a Republican, replaces independent Gov. Bill Walker on Dec. 3. Dunleavy ran, at least in part, on cutting the size of state government.
“The letter was really kind of unclear. So employees were like, ‘Wait, what?’ ” said Department of Administration Commissioner Leslie Ridle. She supported Democrat Mark Begich after Walker dropped out of the race for governor. As a Walker cabinet member and a Democrat, she said she knew she was out of a job when Dunleavy won. But other state employees who received the call for a resignation letter — and were invited to ask to keep their job — never thought of themselves as political appointees. Some would be hard to replace because the private sector pays more, she said.
“Would ConocoPhillips treat their employees this way? Would BP treat their employees this way? Never. Because they would be afraid to lose their employees,” Ridle said.
The Department of Administration said that there are approximately 1,500 exempt and partially exempt state employees. Of that number, 808 were listed on a spreadsheet of workers who received the request for resignations. Ridle said her department was putting together a list of answers to “frequently asked questions” by employees to clarify how the process will play out in the coming weeks.
One high-ranking state official, Anthony Blanford, the director of psychiatry at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, has publicly refused to sign the resignation letter. In a letter published Monday in the Daily News, Blanford said he had a problem with offering Dunleavy a “symbolic gesture of deference.”
“I can’t say I’m in favor of further cuts and hiring freezes, because that’s not what’s needed at API at this time, and that’s the only plan I’ve heard so far,” Blanford wrote.
“The state of Alaska hired me for my expertise, not my political allegiance,” he continued. “My moral allegiance is to the mentally ill and the staff who care for them.”
Babcock, the former head of the Alaska Republican Party, is leading Dunleavy’s transition team. He said he had not read Blanford’s letter. He declined to say if refusal to submit a resignation letter and to pledge willingness to be part of the Dunleavy administration would automatically lead to Blanford’s firing.
“People have so many ways of responding to a reminder that they are public servants," Babcock said, adding Blanford’s letter would be taken into account in the decision-making process.
“Taking offense at the idea of being asked to submit your letter of resignation when you are an at-will employee kind of throws democracy on its head," Babcock said. “You are there to serve the public.”
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He said the way that Alaskans deliver a verdict on how government is operating is at the ballot booth, voting for governor.
Former Anchorage District Attorney Clint Campion said he has heard from several prosecutors who were alarmed by the letters from Dunleavy’s transition team. They want to know when their fate will be decided, he said, and what the criteria would be for which prosecutors would be kept and which might be fired.
“As D.A., I never knew the political affiliation of anybody who worked for me,” said Campion, who left the Department of Law for private practice last year. "I never once asked anyone who worked for me if they’re Republican, Democrat or independent. It never mattered. And now it seems like it might matter.”
The immediate impact on Alaska prosecutors, including those currently working homicide cases, he said, is that of a distraction — not knowing if they will have a job at the end of their current trials or while working weekends to interview witnesses.
“Morale is at a real low point,” Campion said. If prosecutors are to be determined by their politics, he said, perhaps Alaska should hold direct election for attorney general or district attorney, as in other states.
A current state prosecutor, who asked not to be named, said that state attorneys who publicly opposed President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are worried they will be targeted by the new governor. Other prosecutors have talked of forming a union. Another current prosecutor, who also did not want to be named out of fear of losing his or her job, described the call for resignations a “gut punch” because many prosecutors had been “looking forward to working with Dunleavy due to his promise to repeal SB 91.”
State law defines exempt employees as judges, department heads, medical examiners, certain doctors and many others. Partially exempt employees are defined in state law as certain attorneys, officers on various state boards and commissions, the executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission and many others.
For now, big questions remain unanswered, including the Dunleavy team’s timing, criteria and process for determining which workers will keep their jobs. Babcock said the Walker administration determined which employees fit the description of exempt and partially exempt workers eligible for the letter. Campion, the former Anchorage district attorney, said he wondered if the transition team knew that the letters would go to criminal prosecutors. Babcock and a Dunleavy representative did not immediately respond to that question late Monday.