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Kenai Peninsula Borough says employee made 'credible' harassment claims against Pierce

Sabine Poux
/
KDLL
The borough disclosed the new information at a special meeting Sunday. But it stopped short of releasing specifics about the allegations or the internal investigation.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough now says mayor and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Pierce was asked to consider resigning from office after an employee filed workplace harassment claims against him and a law firm found them to be credible.

The borough disclosed the new information at a special meeting Sunday. But it stopped short of releasing specifics about the allegations or the internal investigation.

Pierce announced in late August he wasresigning as mayor to focus on his bid for governor. And he’s doubled down on that reasoning, even amid rumors of a potential workplace harassment claim against him.

But now, for the first time, the borough has confirmed the existence of allegations against Pierce. During an emergency meeting Sunday, the borough assembly released a statement that said Pierce was asked to consider submitting a voluntary resignation as part of a potential resolution, to help the borough avoid a lawsuit. The assembly also agreed in a Aug. 23 executive session to pay mediation costs “up to $10,000,” according to the statement.

Assembly President Brent Johnson said Monday it was important to release the statement to be as transparent as possible without compromising a resolution to the claims.

“We’re balancing trying to not interfere with the mediation and trying to give the public as much information as possible," he said.

The borough already confirmed last month it had hired Anchorage law firm Ashburn & Mason to conduct a confidential and internal human resources investigation in July. The fee contract was dated July 14 and specified a billing rate of $350 per hour.

In the new statement, the assembly specified that the investigation looked into claims made July 11 by a borough employee against Pierce. The statement does not go into any further detail about the allegations.

"Due to the fact that there was no external complaint filed in an administrative forum or court of law, the report was investigated as an internal, confidential, personnel matter under the Borough’s internal Bullying, Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation Prevention Policy,” the statement read.

That prevention policy outlines the borough’s process for investigating claims. It says borough employees making complaints should bring those matters to the attention of their supervisor, the head of their department or the human resources director. That matter then should get referred to the human resources director — or, if the complaint is against that director, to the borough attorney.

The acting human resources director at the time of the complaint was Chief of Staff Aaron Rhoades, who is leaving the borough at the end of the month with Pierce. Rhoades has not publicly given a reason for his resignation.

The contracted law firm, meanwhile, provided its report to the borough July 26. The statement from the assembly said the firm corroborated the complaint and found the claims made against Pierce to be credible.

On Sunday, the assembly considered releasing that report to the public. Borough Attorney Sean Kelley cautioned the decision was not one to take lightly.

"These actions could impact the finances of the borough and the ability of the borough to adequately investigate personnel matters confidentially," he said at the meeting.

And after an 80-minute executive session with the attorney, the assembly agreed to keep the report private in an 8-0 vote. Assembly Member Lane Chesley called into the meeting telephonically and therefore was unable to attend executive session; he abstained from the vote.

This is not the first time the borough has mediated workplace complaints against Pierce.

The borough settled with two former human resources directors over bullying and discrimination complaints, in 2019 and 2021. Juneau radio station KINY obtained and published copies of the settlements, showing a total of $267,000 in costs to the borough — $150,000 in a settlement with Stormy Brown and $117,000 from a settlement with Kim Saner. Both are no longer employees at the borough.

An appropriations request for a third payout wouldn’t necessarily come before the borough assembly, Johnson said, since the borough already has a claims reserve built into its FY2023 budget.

"As long as the amount is under $250,000, the assembly doesn’t have to approve the money," he said.

Pierce is not stepping down as mayor until the end of the month. He was not at the meeting Sunday and has been a no-show at recent gubernatorial debates, too.

He has maintained repeatedly that he resigned to focus on his campaign for governor.

He has also been vocal on Facebook about his qualms with the recent appointment of Mike Navarre as interim borough mayor. Navarre has served in the seat twice before and was appointed by the assembly last week to fill in while the borough moves toward holding a special election for the remainder of Pierce’s term.

During public testimony Sunday, several members of the public said they thought the meeting, announced just two days before, was an attempt to divert attention from that decision. They alleged the appointment bypassed the public process. Kelley, the borough attorney, said there’s no part of state or borough code that dictates how an interim appointment would have to be made.

Assembly Member Tyson Cox, who put Navarre’s name forward for the interim seat, said he hoped the statement about the harassment allegations showed the urgency of making the appointment.

"Some of this urgency within the borough has been since that investigation started," he said. "There has been a lot of uneasiness within the borough itself, with employees. And to me, it felt like we needed to decide on something to move forward."

The assembly’s next regular meeting is Sept. 20. That will be the last meeting while Pierce is in office — though he has already said he will not be in attendance.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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