Tuesday, June 6, 2023
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Human Rights Commission disarray: Hostile work environment?

The Human Rights Commission is once again in turmoil, after Executive Director Marilyn Stewart was shown the door after just two weeks on the job.

From interviews conducted by Must Read Alaska, it appears that Stewart was not the hire-of-choice for Chairwoman Debbie Fullenwider, who has orchestrated a coup against Stewart. Fullenwider felt that Stewart, who applied for the job and had been working in the Governor’s Office, was shoved down her throat.

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Fullenwider had already lined up an interim executive director to step in the moment Stewart was released. Nanette Gay was also the interim director when the previous executive director resigned under pressure.

[Read: Human Rights Commission director resigns over Black Rifles Matter dustup]

A letter from Marcus Sanders to Chairwoman Fullenwider and his fellow commissioners was sent anonymously to Must Read Alaska. In the letter, Sanders, who is the commission’s vice chairman, outlined the events as he saw them unfold:

Sanders said that on July 17, a meeting was held with Stewart at the request of Fullenwider at the commission office in Anchorage. Sanders described it as a non-public meeting that had, in attendance, Fullenwider, Vice Chairperson Sanders, Commissioner David Barton, Administrative Officer Toyia Del Valle and Commission Secretary Shari Ketchum.

Stewart asked that the two staff members leave the meeting so the participants could speak confidentially. The pay for Stewart was one of the topics to be discussed.

“While addressing issues, at some point in the discussion between Chairperson Fullenwider and Executive Director Stewart, the conversation became heated and confrontational. I was a little disappointed in the actions of Chairperson Fullenwider. I felt she showed little respect toward the Commission’s new Executive Director. I felt some of the comments made did not represent the Commission and what the Commissioners and the Human Rights Commission stands for,” Sanders wrote.

“I am not writing to destroy or tear down anyone. I would like to use this incident as a learning tool. Moving forward my desire is that we treat everyone including Commissioners and staff with mutual respect and honor. I realize that in the past there has been some tension in the office around recent events concerning former Executive Director Marti Buscaglia. The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights is getting past these highly unusual circumstances and moving toward the future. My hope is that in the future we are able to work out our differences and work together to build trust with one another and the citizens of Alaska that we serve,” he wrote.

Sanders’ letter said that Fullenwider questioned Stewart’s qualification and said the commission had lost confidence in her.

“In making that statement, Chairperson Fullenwider was speaking for herself and not for the entire Commission. I personally do not agree with statements that were made. The entire Commission reviewed and vetted Marilyn’s resume. As a body, the Commission came to a consensus that Marilyn was the most qualified and we wanted her to be our new Executive Director. The Commissioners placed our confidence in her ability to run the day to day operations of the Human Rights Commission representing the Commission,” Sanders wrote.

“With regards to the issue of pay, Marilyn had some legitimate questions. She followed proper protocol and expressed those concerns. Marilyn is fully within her rights to be asking these questions. I fully support her right to ask those questions. Once Marilyn concerns were conveyed to the Chairperson, the next step is for the Commission to hold a public meeting and discuss this issue during executive session,” Sanders wrote. “We will be discussing the issues raised and the question of whether there is money available in the budget. A decision will be made by the entire Commission operating as one body.”

But then, Sanders wrote, Fullenwider addressed Stewart: “I am not going to get in a pissing match with you.”

“I felt that statement was disrespectful and highly unprofessional. Statements like that should be left at home and not used at the office,” Sanders wrote. “That statement can be misconstrued in multiple ways. During the course of one of our investigations, if an employer made that statement investigations might conclude that the employee had been subject to a hostile work environment among other conclusions. This statement made by Chairperson Fullenwider made me personally uncomfortable and I found it offensive. I think she should apologize.”

During the meeting, the three male commissioners all voted to retain Stewart, while the four female commissioners voted to fire her. Fullenwider was heard to remark that perhaps Stewart works better with men than women.

As for Stewart, she says she is in a state of shock, because she had no idea that she was being immediately terminated. But the sequence of events shows that the four commissioners who voted to remove her had prearranged to retain Nanette Gay as the interim executive director, which indicates planning had taken place prior to the meeting with Stewart.

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Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.


  1. Probably past time for Gov. Dunleavy to ask for Commish Fullenwider’s immediate resignation.
    Sounds like she is on a power trip. In the light of current budgetary issues, is this Commission
    really necessary?

    • Alaska should have genuine enforcement of housing and employment discrimination statutory provisions on the books via the Attorney General’s Office and dump this dysfunctional commission structure.

  2. Show us the photos of the four women on the commission. This will quickly tell the story why they got rid of the pretty lady. Cat fight over good looks. THAT’s the “human” in the human rights commission.

    • Given the nature of the comment here by the “King of Uganda” a change in title appears to be in order.
      How about “King of Dim Bulbs” or something along those line.
      Get a king sized grip on reality.

    • Agreed – there is more going on here than just a personality clash. Marilyn Stewart is good people and highly qualified for this post. To have a commissioner lead a single demographic in termination without cause is not just a travesty, but illegal and a violation of human rights. Past time to kill this commission, or at least terminate some commissioners.

  3. A comment like, “Perhaps you work better with men that women,” and “I’m not going to get into a pissing contest with you,” could be discrimination against Stewart for being a woman — made by, yet again, someone within ACHR. First, the former executive director Buscaglia attacks conservatives and now, commissioner Fullenwider attacks a woman. Sounds like a personal agenda.

    Cutting this agency from the state budget is a great idea. It’s counterproductive and a waste of money.

    • Good point. In fact, better than good.
      AK WOMAN had this pegged.
      Somebody tell Tuckerman Babcock to wind this commission down proto and have Attorney General Clarkson assume the duties of enforcing the laws.

  4. Unfortunately this appears to bean an unfortunate cat fight for turf control. What the heck is wrong with people? Your jobs are to assist in improving the lives of those less fortunate thzn others. Instead, your group undermines the appointment of a well respected black American with honed style and skill. There is a disconnect between the board’s leadership action and the board. I suggest you revisit your mission statement on your knees praying.

    • All personnel discussions & decisions are made in executive session – by law. There was no violation of OMA here. Amazing that any news of it reached the public.

      • when I was on a board, the executive session had to be called while in regular session. We were expressly told we broke the law in discussing one personnel hiring issue before the regular meeting. The instigator of the illegal meeting was fired.

      • Thank you, Rich, for your knowledge of the law. Commissions work differently than boards. We were not allowed to discuss personnel without notification to the person and they had to have a chance to be at the meeting. And serial meetings are a no-go. I think there may still be some violations.

  5. I have worked with Marilyn Steward. She handles difficult people and circumstances well. She has served the state under different leadership with sensitivity, intelligence and grace. I trust enough people know her that she will find a place that appreciates and can better use her abilities. She is a class act.

  6. I was shocked and sadden to read that Marilyn Stewart, the newly appointed executive director of the Alaska Commission on Human Rights has been terminated after only 2 weeks on the job. The decision to terminate her employment was made by the all-volunteer board of directors of the Commission on Wednesday. It was not a unanimous decision.
    Marcus Sanders, Co-Chairman of the Commission, has written a letter laying out the events at the meeting. Per Mr. Sanders’ letter the proceedings seemed to be abusive, capricious and not up to the expected standards of a commission dealing with human rights.
    I have known Marilyn Stewart professional for several years and her background will confirm her administrative and managerial expertise.
    She was the first African-American woman to hold the position in the 55 years of the commission’s history. Before joining the Alaska Commission on Human Rights she worked for Gov. Michael Dunleavy as director of outreach.
    She came to Alaska with the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Richardson. In 2012, she was awarded the Freedom’s Sister Award by Ford Motor Company for her community outreach. Previous recipients included Myrlie Evers-Williams, Barbara Jordan, and Rosa Parks.
    She is the former director of the Office of Equal Opportunity under Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, small business development program manager at the Alaska Department of Commerce, deputy director of community relations for Gov. Frank Murkowski, and constituent relations aide to Gov. Tony Knowles.
    Stewart was the co-founder and first executive director of Bridge Builders of Anchorage, and president/CEO of the Alaska Black Chamber of Commerce.
    It appears that a review of this situation is need by the Gov. Dunleavy.

    David Morgan

  7. It seems clear that this Commission is not functioning in its intended purpose. Steward was fortunate to leave when she did. Please close down this ridiculous Commission.

  8. What is going on with these people? Sounds like a fiefdom that needs to be eliminated to help with budget cuts.

    My sympathies to the executive director who took the position in good faith.

    I’m sure the Human Rights Commission has done some good work….but….first we had the black rifles matter issue & now this. Its becoming more trouble than its worth.

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