An internal investigation into allegations of harassment against outgoing Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce were found to be “credible” by an independent firm, the borough assembly said in a statement released Sunday. Pierce was asked “to consider his voluntary resignation” as part of a potential resolution to the matter, the same statement said.
The meeting came less than a week after the assembly appointed Mike Navarre to serve as the borough’s interim mayor starting Oct. 1, and about two weeks after Pierce announced that he would be stepping down as borough mayor to focus “full-time” on his 2022 gubernatorial bid. Pierce, who has served as mayor since 2017, announced his run for governor in January.
Assembly President Brent Johnson on Friday called the special Sunday assembly meeting. On the special meeting agenda were a discussion regarding items discussed in an Aug. 23 assembly executive session and a discussion about the release of an internal human resources investigation report.
The Aug. 23 executive session came days before Pierce announced his resignation. That resignation is not effective until Sept. 30, however, Pierce has said the assembly’s Sept. 6 meeting was his last as mayor. Pierce was not in attendance at Sunday’s special meeting, nor was his chief of staff, Aaron Rhoades.
According to the statement released by the assembly Sunday, it was suggested that Pierce consider voluntarily resigning as mayor as a way to resolve a complaint made by a borough employee on July 11 alleging through counsel harassment by Pierce. As reported by the Anchorage Daily News, Pierce said in January he planned to keep his job through the August primary, then work on an exit plan if he advanced to the general election.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney Sean Kelley supplied on Aug. 28 a copy of a contract between the borough and Anchorage firm Ashburn & Mason, which the borough hired in late July to conduct a confidential, internal human resources investigation. The contract shows that the borough was charged $350 per hour for services provided by Thomas Wang.
The report provided by Ashburn & Mason on July 26, the assembly’s Sunday statement says, “corroborated the complainant’s report and found the claims credible.” Records obtained by The Peninsula Clarion via a public information request show that the Ashburn & Mason investigation cost the borough about $17,800 in total, though descriptions of specific services provided were redacted.
The assembly during Sunday’s special meeting voted 8-0 against releasing the report generated by the internal investigation.
A copy of a July 26 memo — obtained by the Clarion via a public information request — sent from Ashburn & Mason to the borough with subject line “Status of Investigation,” shows that the firm prepared a six-page confidential report. The totality of the memo’s body text was redacted, with the borough citing attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product.
At the time the investigation was conducted, the borough’s acting head of HR, through whom borough code says personnel complaints are filed, was Rhoades.
Rhoades, who is also set to depart the borough on Sept. 30, was brought on last year and has known Pierce for decades. He took over the borough’s human resources department after the former director, Kim Saner, left the borough in December 2021.
As reported by radio station KINY and The Alaska Beacon, newly released borough documents, first published by KINY, show that Saner left the borough in December 2021 with a $117,000 settlement after filing complaints against Pierce.
A copy of Saner’s settlement, which does not include Saner’s last name but does include his first name and title, show that, as part of the agreement, Saner agrees he does not want to “make any further allegations of alleged ‘illegal acts’ by Mayor Pierce.” The settlement also shows that Saner agreed to withdraw allegations of bullying related to his employment. The settlements confidentiality clause says that Saner agreed not to “talk about, write about, or otherwise publicize the terms or existence of” the agreement.
As the head of the borough’s human resources department, Saner replaced Sandra “Stormy” Brown, who also left the borough with a settlement involving Pierce. Brown, who left the borough in 2019, received a $150,000 settlement after alleging that Pierce fired her after she disclosed a terminal breast cancer diagnosis.
Since elected in 2017, Pierce has racked up $267,000 in settlement payments to former employees.
The statement released by assembly members on Sunday says that settlement ranges for the July 11 incident will not be disclosed “because disclosure could negatively impact Borough finances and opportunity for early resolution of this matter.” Additionally, a confidential mediation is being conducted as a way “to avoid costs associated with a threatened lawsuit.”
It was as part of that mediation, the assembly statement says, that Pierce was asked to “consider submitting his voluntary resignation.” The resignation could provide more opportunity for “pre-suit resolution” and offer a “meaningful return to work opportunity” for the person who filed the complaint, the assembly statement says.
About 25 people attended Sunday’s special assembly meeting, which was held at the George A. Navarre Admin Building in Soldotna. More people attended through Zoom. Those who testified at the end of the special meeting were split on their reactions to the outcome of the meeting.
Some felt the borough did not release enough information and said the assembly was bearing the brunt of criticism that should be directed toward Pierce, while others condemned the meeting scheduling and accused the assembly of trying to draw attention away from their appointment of an interim mayor.
Michele Vasquez, who attended Sunday’s meeting remotely, said she was “a little bit blown away” by how many of the people testifying were concerned about the timing of the meeting, rather than about Pierce’s conduct. She criticized what she called a “pattern” of Pierce’s behavior and said assembly members should not be taking blame for something done by the mayor.
“I think for the future, we should look very carefully at the entirety of the history of the persons that we elect to public office because this is just not right,” Vasquez said. “This is not fair to the citizens.”
Renae Wall, of Sterling, said the assembly statement was “covered in political agenda” and expressed skepticism about what conclusions can be drawn from the assembly’s statement.
“Yes, there’s an investigation, but that doesn’t mean that there’s any guilt,” Wall said. “So claims are considered credible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been proven. That’s simply saying that someone brought forth a claim that meets the description of being harassment. Well, that doesn’t prove anything. So the way that it’s colored makes Charlie sound guilty.”
Wall was one of many to suggest that Sunday’s meeting was called to divert attention from the assembly’s 7-2 vote last week to appoint Navarre as the borough’s interim mayor. The assembly has received backlash for the vote to put Navarre in charge once Pierce leaves the borough at the end of the month. Navarre is a two-time former borough mayor and a former state lawmaker.
Kelley said Sunday that the special meeting was not about the interim mayor appointment process. Still, both members of the public and the assembly addressed the move.
Assembly members were split during a Sept. 6 meeting of the assembly’s Policies and Procedures Committee whether or not they should solicit applications for the position before appointing an interim mayor. Some felt the brevity of the interim mayor’s term justified an assembly appointment, while others said the borough should open a formal application process for the interim position.
In the days since, the assembly has been criticized for the appointment, which some say excluded the public. A motion to appoint Navarre came from assembly member Tyson Cox as a last-minute addition to the Sept. 6 committee meeting. Navarre, who attended that meeting, fielded questions from assembly members and later attended the regular meeting, during which he was appointed.
Assembly member Richard Derkevorkian, who was one of the two assembly members to vote in opposition to Navarre’s appointment along with Bill Elam, has been a vocal critic of Navarre’s appointment. He’s accused Cox of ignoring what members of the public want, while Cox has maintained that a majority of assembly members did what they thought was best in a situation stemming from Pierce’s resignation.
Derkevorkian said during the assembly’s Sept. 6 meeting that he would have liked to have seen the borough hold an application period for the assembly to consider candidates at their Sept. 20 meeting. That would still leave 10 days before Pierce left the borough and give members of the public a chance to be involved.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship, however, told assembly members during last Tuesday’s meetings that it could be challenging to solicit applications on such a tight timeline; the clerk’s office is in the process of preparing for the Oct. 4 election, she said.
The deadline for the clerk to prepare materials for the assembly’s Sept. 20 meeting was Sept. 8 — two days after the assembly’s last meeting.
“We’d need to create an application, which we don’t have at this current time (and) we’d have to talk to the legal department and the assembly leadership to find out what they want on the application,” Blankenship said. “So within 48 hours, I would say, it would be very hard to get it done and get it done correctly.”
Assembly member Jesse Bjorkman on Sunday said the assembly is only convening because of the actions that necessitated a formal statement from the body.
“As things have happened, it’s become clear to many of us that this borough needed a remedy for a situation that was deeply harmful to its employees, deeply harmful to the processes of government and (to) the delivery of core and central government services,” Bjorkman said.
Assembly Vice President Brent Hibbert agreed.
“It does suck to be here on a Sunday,” Hibbert said. “I agree with you. But, (there are) certain things that we do have to do. The reason I believe that we’re here tonight is because of the actions of our mayor. If we wouldn’t have had that, we wouldn’t be here.”
The assembly’s Sunday meeting can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.com.