Montesano faces potential suit over workplace conditions


Editor’s note: This is a shorter version of an investigative story that first appeared in The Vidette.

MONTESANO — A long-time Public Works employee with the city of Montesano has filed a $400,000 claim for damages against the city, alleging retaliation, breach of contract and favoritism among city administration, including Mayor Ken Estes and City Administrator Kristy Powell.

The damage claim is just the latest in a string of incidents dating back to the fall involving the city’s Public Works crew and city administration, which has seen City Council chambers fill up with employees and their friends and family members decrying the over-reach they say Powell has shown as a supervisor.

Council meetings lately have included regular closed-door updates for council members to hear about personnel issues and potential litigation with action taken after executive sessions to spend more money on special investigations.

The city has also enlisted the services of a labor attorney to deal with personnel issues, separate from its contracted lawyer Dan Glenn, who acts as city attorney. Total costs for attorney services, investigators and other time has yet to be tallied up. At this point, however, the city has spent $25,650 on three investigations and a bill on a fourth investigation is still ongoing. Another $13,186 was spent on labor attorney costs between September and December.

Costs are split between the city’s water fund and general fund. The general fund, used to pay for day-to-day expenses, shows a total of about $10,000 spent so far. Powell said that the city will get reimbursed from its insurance company for part of the costs. The city has a $5,000 deductible.

Powell was hired in 2008 by then-mayor Ron Schillinger. Mayor Estes kept her on staff and expresses “unequivocal support” of her decisions and says she has become the victim of a vicious campaign of anonymous letters and cruel behavior on the part of some members of the community and city staff. Some employees and their supporters say Powell is a poor communicator who is using city resources for a witch hunt against city employees. Powell’s husband, Lyle, is a member of the City Council and has also been targeted because some community members think it’s inappropriate for him to be in his position, though there’s nothing in state law or city code forbidding it. In fact, after he was appointed to the post, he ran unopposed for the position.

“I’m trying to do my best here,” Powell said, although, she noted, she’s not able to go into many details involving personnel decisions.

“I think people who have issues use it to deflect or put up a smoke screen and their attack of me may make them feel better,” Powell said. “I don’t know if it changes the truth. Do I lose sleep? No. But I am doing my job and, in my job, I am in a bad position because all of the letters that people get putting them on suspension or any discipline that comes from me are actually written by our attorneys. All of those letters I have to sign. And people think that I am after them when really I’m just doing my job.”

Using the state Public Records Act, The Vidette has requested and received dozens of records relating to hostile work environment investigations, suspended employees and the costs of everything compiled to date. Powell said more public records are forthcoming.

POTENTIAL LAWSUIT

Public Works Lead Russell Burke has been on paid administrative leave for about 11 weeks as the city investigates allegations that he may have been using city-owned paint for personal use. Burke owns his own painting company. The state Auditor called the city saying that an anonymous caller reported the paint issue, Powell said.

The issue has even reached a point where the Hoquiam Police Department was called in to act as a third-party investigator in the situation to look into potential criminal issues and the city has been doing a parallel external investigation. The investigation reports have yet to be turned over to The Vidette and the specifics are not yet available.

Burke has been on paid administrative leave since Feb. 12. He’s since hired a Tacoma attorney to file a $400,000 claim for damages against the city, Estes, Powell and Public Works Director Rocky Howard.

Burke declined to comment for this story, based on advice from his attorney.

Burke’s claim for damages states he was hired by the city in March of 1986. In 1999, he was promoted to assistant public works director. In March of 2010, Powell gave him the position of public works supervisor, “telling him that if the position was not permanent he could return to his previous position as assistant public works director,” the claim said. He held the supervisor position for three years until March of 2012, when Powell and newly elected Mayor Estes decided they were going to hire a new public works director.

Burke alleges in the claim that he got on Estes’ bad side because he was supporting then-mayoral candidate Doug Streeter.

Estes says that he never took it personally that some people voted against him, noting that even Powell and her husband had been supporting Streeter.

Burke says he applied for the new position, was interviewed by an independent committee and was “unanimously recommended” to the mayor to get the job, the claim says.

“Instead, Defendant Ken Estes elected to hire Defendant Rocky Howard, despite (Howard’s) lack of experience,” Burke said.

Estes has said that Howard, who has extensive experience working for construction firm Rognlin’s in Aberdeen and more than 40 years in construction altogether, was the superior candidate.

Burke says in his claim he wanted to go back to his old position as assistant public works director, per his previous agreement with Powell, but the position was eliminated, leading him to take a Public Works lead position with a pay cut and a loss of authority.

HOSTILE WORKPLACE

Allegations of a hostile workplace are being thrown around from all sides.

On one side, Public Works employees say that Powell and Howard are abusing their authority, although the finger is pointed more at Powell.

A union grievance was filed against Howard alleging “verbal abuse and hostility in the work environment” after he yelled at one of his employees and used words he shouldn’t have. Howard fully admits this happened, but said it was just a one-time event. Mayor Estes put a written reprimand in Howard’s file and Howard says he’ll know better next time.

The city launched its own investigation into a potential workplace harassment situation among Public Works employees, however, when one employee among the group said he felt he was being harassed by his co-workers. The investigation also noted that Howard was feeling very uncomfortable in his new position.

“I asked him if he had ever experienced the hostility that I was sensing he was feeling in his previous jobs,” independent investigator William Curtright wrote in one of his reports after interviewing Howard. “He said, ‘never.’ I asked him if he felt there was hostility towards him because he was selected for the public works director position. He said, ‘I think there is especially on Mr. Burke’s part.’ …

“Mr. Howard said he thought that Mr. Burke was a very controlling person and that three days into his new job as public works director Mr. Burke had said to him that we (referring to the crew) can make you look great or we can make you look foolish. He stated that Mr. Burke has a way of manipulating people who are not as strong-willed to see things and do things his way and to get people to bypass me.”

Curtright also noted that his investigation showed “inappropriate communication styles, a total lack of teamwork, standards, and respecting or accepting other people’s opinions” along with “favoritism, unprofessional behavior, and disparate treatment by some crew members” toward not just the employee that complained, but two other employees, as well.

Although Burke was cleared in the investigation, Curtright concludes, “Instead of recognizing, intervening, attempting to resolve problems and working with city administrators to solve these serious personnel issues, Burke is named as one of the people causing the problems. It appears that he did nothing to try to resolve the issues or protect all employees other than circle the wagons during this investigation.”

“None of these cases have been instigated,” Estes said. “We didn’t throw rocks. We didn’t drop a bucket. That was all them. They’re the ones pushing this thing and I don’t think it’s right. It’s not what we want. I’d like to have some pot holes filled and pretty flowers planted. These allegations have to be investigated and it all costs the taxpayers money.”

For the complete story, see the May 2, 2013 edition of The Vidette or visit www.thevidette.com.