Dunleavy removes Democrat as Oil and Gas Commission chair
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has removed a former Democratic state senator from the chairman’s seat of a state oil and gas oversight group, saying he was terminated for cause.
Dunleavy spokesman Matt Shuckerow released a letter Tuesday evening from the governor to Hollis French, dismissing him from his post at the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
French was once tapped as Democrat Byron Mallott’s running mate during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, before Mallott became Bill Walker’s running mate in the “unity ticket” that defeated then-Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican.
French weighed in on the governor's decision Tuesday evening in a Facebook message.
“This is another bad decision by the governor," French wrote. "I am proud of my work on the commission and intend to demonstrate that it was always directed to protecting the public interest. It’s sad that the governor seems to want a watchdog agency without any teeth.”
A set of findings regarding French, compiled by hearing officer Tim Petumenos, cited “chronic unexcused absenteeism” on French’s part. According to Petumenos, staff documented French’s presence in the office by mid-July 2017 at “perennially and significantly less than a full day,” with French’s secretary saying that finding excuses for his absence made her “uncomfortable.”
Petumenos also found that the absences didn’t significantly delay or affect the commission’s work. He also said that French “was not seriously confronted or informed internally” at the commission regarding his colleagues’ concerns before he was targeted for termination.
French was cleared in Petumenos’ assessment of “browbeating fellow commissioners and others” regarding matters before the three-member commission as claimed by colleagues, particularly when he was in the minority on its votes.
“Commissioner French was persistent and energetic in pursuing his view that the jurisdiction of the AOGCC was being interpreted more narrowly than he believed that the enabling statutes intended," Petumenos wrote. "He persisted in attempting to secure a written response from the Department of Law as to whether his legal reasoning had merit, and conducted his own research and issued writings of his own supporting his point of view.”
Petumenos pointed out that French’s arguments were based on the scope of the commission’s work, rather than advocating to modify the commission’s decisions. He noted that removing French for cause based on those allegations might run afoul of state law intended to prevent people from being fired based on their positions regarding specific issues.
“Though this persistence may be experienced by others to be a waste of time, be annoying or frustrating, it is too close to the prohibition against issue-based removal to stand scrutiny on these facts,” Petumenos wrote. “This governor, and future governors, should be free to hear from commissioners, even minority view commissioners, without the fear that the commissioner could be removed for bringing issues to the governor or attorney general's attention.”
In similar fashion, Petumenos found no proof that French had “undermined” the commission in his public speaking. He also declined to determine whether French mentioning the location of a safe within the commission’s offices to a news reporter – which was then moved by his fellow commissioners – constituted a security breach.
Petumenos did find that French’s absences had transferred work to other commissioners and employees. In his final summary, he questioned whether anyone else at the commission could have imposed any lesser discipline on French, as its chairman, short of dismissal by the governor.
“It is unfortunate that communication at the AOGCC had come to the point where concerns about the matters addressed at the hearing could not have been worked out internally,” Petumenos wrote. “But it appears difficult, if not impossible, given our statutory scheme, for the governor's office to interpose any form of intermediate discipline or supervision given the statutes that clearly protect commissioner independence.”
According to Dunleavy’s letter, French has 30 days to appeal his dismissal.
Megan Mazurek contributed information to this story.
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