Laid-off Alaska arts council employee threatens lawsuit, saying recall support doomed her chances for rehire

JUNEAU -- Keren Lowell lost her job at the Alaska State Council on the Arts when Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the agency’s budget earlier this year. When the Alaska Legislature restored the council’s funding and Dunleavy agreed, it appeared she would get her job back.

Instead, she received an email saying she would not be rehired because she supports a campaign seeking Dunleavy’s recall from office.

Now, with the help of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, she’s threatening a lawsuit unless she gets her job back.

“My role with the state as a public servant does not mean I have to surrender my First Amendment rights,” she said by phone Thursday morning.

The ACLU sent a letter to the state at 8 a.m. Thursday saying that Lowell was the subject of unlawful retaliation and should have her job back. Jeff Turner, the governor’s deputy communications director, said it had not yet been received.

ACLU officials said the decision to not rehire Lowell was made by the governor’s director of boards and commissions, meaning that the governor and his chief of staff may not be aware of the issue. The letter, ACLU legal director Stephen Koteff said, is an opportunity to fix the problem before the organization files legal action.

The ACLU’s claims are based on a September email from the arts council’s executive director saying that according to the council’s parent department, the reason Lowell was not hired “is related to statements made on social media about the governor.”

Turner said in a written statement that “considering this letter addresses personnel issues and threatens potential litigation, it is not appropriate to comment at this time. We will respond in due course after a thorough review and consultation with the Department of Law.”

Alaska law prohibits the state from using “political beliefs” as a reason to hire (or not) an employee for most state jobs. But that protection doesn’t apply to what are known as “exempt” jobs, and the arts council job is one.

In addition, Lowell said that while she made some political posts while still an employee, “it wasn’t until I was released from state service that I became more active.”

A separate state law protects political rights for current employees, but it doesn’t appear to apply to people who are not yet state workers.

The ACLU’s claims are principally based on First Amendment grounds, however, not state law.

Koteff said the position of the ACLU is that the state “doesn’t have the right to make determinations about who will work for state government based upon whether they think their politics are acceptable.”

The organization is already suing Dunleavy and his former chief of staff in federal court over the firings of three former state employees. The state says those employees failed to properly sign documents during the transition from former Gov. Bill Walker. The ACLU says the documents amounted to a political loyalty pledge, thus any firings based on them are illegal. A fourth employee has filed a separate lawsuit in state court.

Correction: This article has been updated to say that the letter has not yet been received by the state.