Last week some 800 non-union state employees received letters from Governor-elect Mike Dunleavy’s transition team telling them to resign and reapply for their positions in a totally normal move to make sure “they want to work for the Dunleavy administration.”
It’s been noted plenty that these sorts of requests are not at all new for incoming administrations, but it’s the scope that’s been shocking, reaching far beyond political appointees at the top of agency organization charts to frontline employees.
The state’s attorneys have been hit particularly hard, with these loyalty letters hitting 115 attorneys working in the criminal division—including the ones currently working on a high-profile murder in Mat-Su—25 child protection attorneys and another 19 guardian ad litems, who are there to ensure children are best represented while going through legal proceedings, just to name a few.
But the reach of the Dunleavy team’s loyalty-or-resignation letters can’t reach nearly as far as the incoming Republican administration had hoped. That’s because some branches of state government and their employees are protected from at-will firings by the governor (but then again four years is plenty of time—more on that below).
The largest pool of these employees is the University of Alaska system, which is specifically set aside from the governor and the Legislature’s management. The two get to decide the state’s contribution to the university’s budget, but not how it’s spent. Under the Alaska Constitution it’s the Board of Regents that holds those reins (at least for now).
Still, UA President Jim Johnsen had to explain this in a letter to employees.
— The Alaska Landmine (@alaskalandmine) November 20, 2018
While other agencies are housed under the executive branch, they also have protections written into state law that prevent the governor from easily replacing their non-union staff.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission, the underfunded non-partisan watchdog for campaign finance and lobbyists, is one of those. The agency’s executive director and staff—eight employees total—are specifically hired by the APOC commissioners. Those commissioners hold the authority to hire and fire the agency’s executive director and staff.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission has not received any of the letters, said Director Heather Hebdon.
“We have not received the request and we’re not sure we will,” she said.
But figuring out just which agencies have these protections (like the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority) and which do not is a tricky task that’s seemingly tripped up the Dunleavy team.
While the letters skipped over APOC, they did reach Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office director Erika McConnell, according to a list obtained by The Midnight Sun. McConnell is similarly shielded by her commissioners, and state law says the governor can only remove the director for cause.
If she doesn’t send in her resignation letter and reapply, there’s nothing that the administration can do to immediately remove her.
Why it matters
The loyalty-or-resignation letters are just the first step in the Dunleavy administration’s reshaping of Alaska’s government into their Republican vision. It’s expected that more of those letters will be sent out before the Dunleavy is officially sworn in, and the whole situation also highlights another step that’s almost certainly coming.
In the cases where agencies and their non-union employees are shielded by boards and commissions, the Dunleavy team could simply take the extra step of giving those boards and commissions the boot and replacing them with members who “want to work for the Dunleavy administration.”
We asked if there was a consolidated list of the boards and commissions that serve at the will of the governor, but again it’s tricky to figure out just which boards and commissions have protections and which do not. Some boards, like the Mental Health Trust Authority’s Board of Trustees, specifically outline removal processes in law while others are silent on the matter.
The Alaska Constitution grants the governor broad powers over boards and commissions, stating that members are appointed by the governor, approved by the Legislature and “may be removed as provided by law.”
At least when it comes to the agencies mentioned in this article, here’s what we could find.
The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents can’t be removed without cause, at least that’s the opinion of the Department of Law from a 2007 legal memo.
“We have been asked whether the Governor has the power to remove a University of Alaska regent without cause. In our view, the answer is no,” the memo states bluntly, going on to note that members could be impeached or removed with cause.
The Alaska Public Offices Commission, for example, has set-in-law membership requirements. The top two parties in the most recent gubernatorial race each get to nominate two members to the 5-member commission (yes, we currently have two Libertarians on the commission). The four pick the fifth member.
The law doesn’t outline their removal, however.
Similar membership requirements exist for the Alcohol Control Board, requiring a mix of industry, public safety and private members.
It is also silent on their removal.
In both of those cases, there’s another law that applies to to cases where their removal isn’t otherwise outlined in law.