FREEZE-SCHMEEZE: In January of 2016, Gov. Bill Walker put in place a hiring freeze and travel restrictions for state workers, due to Alaska’s budget crisis. His instructions were very clear.
In a memo from then-Chief of Staff Jim Whitaker, last year he banned hiring into vacant staff jobs, with the exception of those essential to Alaskans’ life and safety, such as State Troopers, corrections officers, and some in the health fields.
According to his memo, commissioners may ask for a hiring exemption if they feel a job is critical to the mission and cannot be accomplished with existing workforce. Each exemption would be evaluated by the chief of staff.
Since then, the governor has approved all kinds of hiring for all manner of nonessential workers, but the most egregious hires have come in his own office and through highly paid contractors he brought in.
THE $100,000 MAN: We come to the pending employment of John-Henry Heckendorn, who is Exhibit A for a hiring freeze that does not exist.
Heckendorn is the young man from Massachusetts who came to Alaska five years ago to work on a campaign for Rep. Andy Josephson, someone he met while attending Whitman College.
He found Alaska to his liking, so much so that he decided to start his own campaign company, Ship Creek Group, which gets Democrats elected. He’s good at it.
Heckendorn is associated with Jim Lottsfeldt Strategies, where he appeared on the Democrat operative’s web site as a team member until his profile was removed last week. Heckendorn has a talent for running effective campaigns. His alliance with Lottsfeldt gives him strong union chops, and a direct line to the Lottsfeldt political blog.
Heckendorn is a likable guy. But in fairness, he’s 100 percent campaign operative.
The governor has made Heckendorn an offer to come onboard his Administration, starting at the end of this month.
This is good for Heckendorn, because it’s an off-year for campaigns and money will be harder to come by with only municipal races in Anchorage to play in. He can put his company on auto-pilot while he goes to work for Walker, who has made him a handsome offer: $97,500.
Heckendorn is 26 years old.
That’s equivalent to nearly 100 Permanent Fund dividends. And that’s not including benefits.
What is Heckendorn’s job? From the paperwork, it’s unclear. There is no actual job description. He told the Alaska Dispatch News that “he will work with the Legislature and the state’s executive-branch agencies.”
Where did the governor come up with the position?
An analysis of the paperwork trail shows Walker has taken a position from the Governor’s Office of International Trade, which had been occupied by an associate director who the governor let go to trim the budget. The governor has slyly converted it into a special assistant position that is likely related to Walker’s re-election bid.
Heckendorn, according to the governor’s organization chart, is at the same reporting level as Communications Director Grace Jang. He will be a special assistant to the Chief of Staff and Governor, but technically reports to Marcia Davis, deputy chief of staff.
His handsome salary at the assigned Range 23, between a step E and F, indicates there has been a salary override. This is a salary step that Heckendorn might only see after working a few years, but he’s getting it right out of the gate.
The new position will be stationed in Anchorage, where the bulk of election strategy work is likely to take place:
WHITAKER, ESSENTIAL TO LIFE AND SAFETY: The governor has also retained his former chief of staff, Jim Whitaker, keeping him at his very lucrative chief-of-staff salary of over $173,000, plus benefits.
Whitaker is around Range 29, Step Q, and adding in the benefits he receives, he pulls down the equivalent of 249 Permanent Fund dividends.
Whitaker’s job description is Special Projects Coordinator, a job created for him after Walker needed to get him out of the spotlight, since he is unpopular with legislators. Whitaker, readers recall, spoke in endorsement of Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
How did Walker carve out that position vacancy? In the paperwork trail it appears that he took a constituent relations position, (PCN 01-405X) , that was in Fairbanks.
That position was vacant due to downsizing his staff. Now he is up-sizing the position from a Range 14 to a Range 29 in order to keep Whitaker close by.
KENDALL, CAMPAIGN MAN AND CHIEF-OF-STAFF: Walker hired former Murkowski campaign operative Scott Kendall as his new chief of staff.
Kendall is in charge of signing off on the Heckendorn hire, and in fact may be looking forward to having the young man join the staff in just 10 days.
Kendall himself came in on a salary override, of nearly Range 29, Step O. With his benefit package, Kendall costs Alaska nearly 232 Permanent Fund dividends.
The world of Bill Walker’s own office salary overrides, layered on his previously announced hiring freezes, gets weirder by the day: This week he announced wage freezes for most non-union state workers.
While admirable, it’s not new. Recall last year’s attempt at freezing wages, an effort by Republicans in the House, which ran into a concrete wall of Democrats. The bill would have kept wages steady until oil hit $90 a barrel.
Back then, Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami called it a “ridiculous sideshow,” and said he was glad to see that Democrats in the House were blocking its passage.
The governor’s bill, SB 31, holds unions harmless and goes after non-union state workers instead.
“Until we enact a sustainable fiscal plan, we must make adjustments,” Governor Walker said in a Jan. 19 press release. “I believe in leading by example and have reduced my own salary by one-third. While it won’t close the fiscal gap, this legislation (SB 31) is a necessary part of the solution to Alaska’s fiscal crisis.”
His bill and transmittal letter are here.
The reality is that the Governor’s Office is in no way leading by example.
THE SALARY OVERRIDE GOVERNOR: This could get awkward for Gov. Walker. While freezing wages for many rank-and-file state workers, he is dramatically upgrading positions in his own office, creating new ones, and re-purposing trade promotion staff to serve as political operatives for his own re-election.
Andree McLeod, a citizen activist who requested the documents from the Governor’s Office that are cited in this story, had this to say: