Anchorage Assembly members interview former library workers following reports of hostile work environment

Anchorage Assembly members are demanding answers from Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration following recent reports of a hostile work environment at the Anchorage Public Library and a continued exodus of staff, as well as concerns raised by organizations that support the library.

During a working session on Friday, the members of the Assembly questioned the leaders of the organization, the ombudsman of the City and four former employees of the library.

Bronson administration officials were invited but did not attend, and signs for Deputy Library Manager Judy Eledge, City Manager Amy Demboski and Human Resources Manager Niki Tshibaka sat in front of empty seats for the duration of the meeting. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said members of the administration were unavailable to attend.

Assembly leaders sent a letter to Demboski on Thursday with a list of questions about a high number of vacancies and the recent closure of the Loussac library on Sunday. They also ask about recent policy changes at the library which current and former staff say are being applied unevenly to library patrons and impacting the ability of homeless individuals and families to use the city ​​libraries.

Current and former employees have reported a toxic workplace and managerial dysfunction following Bronson’s appointment of Eledge. A recently deceased employee accused Eledge of making racist statements about Alaska Natives and derogatory comments about other groups.

[Bronson-appointed Anchorage library manager accused of racist remarks and fostering a hostile work environment]

At Friday’s meeting, recently retired library manager Mary Jo Torgeson said she was concerned about Eledge’s lack of library experience, the way the library is run and the poor staff morale, among other issues she raised.

“The last thing I thought I was doing was sitting in front of you saying, complaining about the library or complaining about a former headmaster – because it just isn’t done. You’re getting out of the way,” Torgeson said. “But things are so blatant for me right now. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I have such strong feelings.

Linda Klein, a former Youth Services librarian, said Eledge instructed staff to return six Dr. Seuss books to library shelves that were previously removed after a group of Anchorage librarians decided. . The Seuss Foundation no longer publishes these books because they contain racist images.

“I was hearing a lot of very upsetting things from the employees and I was concerned about the direction our programming and development of our collection was going, and I also felt that at that point, I really couldn’t. tolerate it,” Klein said, explaining his departure. “Physically, mentally, I was done.”

Midway through the meeting, Assemblyman and Bronson ally Jamie Allard, who had called by phone, called the business session a “witch hunt,” said she would not attend, and hung up.

“This is clearly an orchestrated political attack directed at a municipal worker,” she said.

Assembly leaders scheduled the meeting after receiving a letter from library advisory board chair Cristy Willer last month detailing her concerns that Eledge misrepresented the extent of staffing shortages. Willer said the group was unable to fulfill its responsibilities under the city charter due to poor communication and a lack of information from Bronson officials. .

[Earlier coverage: Still lacking a director, Anchorage Public Library draws scrutiny over board discussion of ‘inappropriate literature’]

Chairman of the Anchorage Library Foundation Board of Trustees Kim Hays told Assembly members that donors are hesitant in the face of staffing issues and reports of library management issues.

Ombudsman Darrel Hess told Assembly members that library workers did not want to file a complaint with human resources, as they believed HR staff “would feel pressured regarding any investigation”.

“They expressed concerns that HR staff might not be comfortable or worried about conducting their investigation because they would be afraid for their jobs,” Hess said.

Between reports to Hess and the director of the city’s Equal Opportunity Office, Heather MacAlpine, they filed serious complaints about the workplace of the 12 to 18-staff library, he said. .

“In 10 years and with 15,000 people, I have never seen so many municipal employees in one establishment, in one department, presenting similar complaints,” Hess said.

Former library deputy director Jacob Cole, who raised his concerns with Hess and later sent the city’s Equal Opportunity Office a list of comments he said Eledge had made and who had “shocked and disturbed” him, spoke by telephone during the meeting. Cole had unsuccessfully applied for the position of library manager and left the Anchorage library in May for an out-of-state job.

Assembly members did not ask Cole for details on Eledge’s comments, instead focusing on his decision to step down as Deputy Assistant Manager and broader issues of leadership, staff morale and library policy.

Assembly Deputy Speaker Chris Constant said Demboski, prior to the meeting in a phone call to the Assembly Speaker, warned Assembly leaders not to publicly discuss personnel matters. , otherwise they could face a lawsuit.

Constant said Assembly leaders have yet to decide on next steps in pursuing the case, but said it is likely they will hold an executive session to speak with library workers. .

Hans Rodvik, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said assembly leaders had scheduled the working session before asking the administration if staff would be available.

“The City Manager proposed to the Assembly Speaker that any Assembly member who has questions about library operations or general management questions be invited to schedule a meeting with the City Manager and she will will be happy to explain municipal operations,” Rodvik said. in an email.

[Anchorage Assembly postpones vote on process to remove a mayor for ‘breach of public trust’]

Rodvik also said he and Demboski were at the library on Friday morning for a visit, but not for the duration of the working session.

Hess told Assembly members he thinks the morale of city workers beyond the library is “pretty low right now” and that he thinks that’s impacting staff turnover and the ability of staff to work effectively.

“I think that’s fair, that’s the reality of the current position, the current situation, and the current mindset of many city workers, rightly or wrongly,” Hess said. “That’s the number of employees I’ve spoken to – employees who worry about doing their jobs because they’re afraid if the way they’re doing their jobs doesn’t meet political expectations, they’re worried by their work.”

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