What happens in Tumwater doesn’t necessarily stay in Tumwater. Kelly Clark of Spokane learned that the hard way.
Clark, 51, who had worked for the Archaeological and Historical Services department at Eastern Washington University in Cheney for 16 years, lost his job in early September after he took pity on a panhandler in the area of Trosper Road and Littlerock Road in Tumwater. With no cash on hand, Clark reached for some groceries he had just bought, pulled out a beer, and handed it to the man. That set off a chain reaction.
Six days later he was fired.
A few days after that he called the Olympian to tell his story.
What happened to Clark may act as a reminder for the 20,000-plus state workers in Thurston County that there are specific rules regarding the use of state vehicles, particularly when it comes to alcohol.
“Do not transport alcohol/intoxicating substances in state vehicles, unless needed to conduct official state business,” the state Department of Enterprise Services fleet operations operator’s manual reads.
Enterprise Services, which manages about a third of the state’s 12,000 vehicles, isn’t responsible for taking action against employees who violate a state vehicle policy. That’s up to the state agency that employs the worker.
“The onus is on their leadership to take action,” said Pat Aga, a program specialist for DES who was part of the chain reaction to what happened that afternoon in Tumwater.
Clark said he was ultimately fired by voicemail.
“We will no longer require your services,” he recalls hearing his boss, Stan Gough, say.
Gough could not be reached by the Olympian, and Eastern Washington University declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on personnel matters.
Trosper and Littlerock
Clark said he had worked seasonally for Archaeological and Historical Services during those 16 years. He was available when they needed him and he would be laid off when work was slow. The department, according to its website, is a “grant/contract research program at Eastern Washington University that specializes in aiding private, city, county, state, and federal clients in meeting local, state, and federal compliance requirements pertaining to the inventory, protection, and enhancement of Pacific Northwest archaeological and historical resources.”
Clark describes himself as an archaeologist, even though he was never hired full time and lacks a master’s degree. He bases his title on his years of field experience.
“It was amazing how many people who came through that department had master’s degrees but had never put a shovel in the ground,” Clark said.
In early September, Clark and some colleagues were dispatched in a state vehicle to Potlatch on Hood Canal. A project was underway to reconfigure a stream in the area, and Clark and his co-workers were assigned to make sure that cultural remains were left undisturbed, he said.
After work on Sept. 9, Clark and his colleagues returned to stay at a hotel in Tumwater. The end-of-the-day plan was to do a little grocery shopping, get cleaned up at the hotel and go out to dinner.
After the grocery shopping, Clark, who was sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle, spotted a man panhandling in the area of Trosper Road and Littlerock Road. He decided to give the man some money, but discovered he didn’t have any cash. He reached into his groceries, pulled out a beer and handed it to the panhandler.
State Department of Commerce employee Eric Tompkins, who was driving behind Clark’s vehicle that day, didn’t like what he saw. That led to a phone call and a series of emails that ultimately resulted in Archaeological and Historical Services Director Gough reminding and chastising his staff about the appropriate use of state vehicles. He also decided to fire Clark.
The Olympian requested and received those emails. Tompkins, whose name was disclosed in those emails, declined to comment.
‘Perfunctory and unacceptable’
Program specialist Aga was on the receiving end of Tompkins’ phone call that day. He took notes, then sent an email to Karen Wichman, facilities services director at Eastern Washington University.
Although DES doesn’t manage the state vehicles used by EWU, Aga has access to a database that can identify the vehicle.
“During the four o-clock hour today on the corner of Trosper Road and Littlerock Road, a 2015 Chevy ton truck licensed to EWU was spotted handing a beer to a homeless man on the sidewalk while awaiting a stoplight. … When confronted by the local state employee (Tompkins, via car windows) about whether that was appropriate behavior, their response was apparently flippant disregard.”
Wichman forwarded Aga’s email to Gough. He followed up with her, explaining what had happened and the action he had decided to take.
“On the way from the store to their motel, the part-time employee in the front passenger seat of the vehicle spontaneously handed a beer to a homeless person on the sidewalk. The vehicle driver and rear-seat passenger expressed alarm and disapproval of that impulsive action. When confronted by the state employee (Tompkins) who observed the incident, the passenger gave a perfunctory and unacceptable response.”
“The person who handed the beer to the pedestrian is no longer employed by AHS, nor is he eligible for employment with us. His action was inexcusable and unacceptable. Such behavior is not what I expect of my permanent or part-time temporary staff.”
“I have no tolerance for this type of behavior from my staff,” Gough said.
Gough also told his staff to review the DES fleet operations operator’s manual regarding driver responsibilities and transporting alcohol.
Clark was fired on Sept. 15, the emails show.
Clark called the decision to fire him harsh, saying he had never missed a day of work. He also said he had no open conflict with Gough, although he acknowledged they have different personalities. Clark describes himself as affable, while he described Gough as more reserved. They didn’t clash, he said, but their relationship was awkward.
Complaints common, just not this kind
Aga, who has worked for DES for eight years, said the Tumwater incident was a first for him. The state typically receives complaints about aggressive drivers or the location of a state vehicle. For example, a person once complained about seeing a state vehicle parked at a casino. It turned out the state Department of Revenue had a reason to be there, Aga said.
Meanwhile, Clark is trying to figure out his next step. He’s not destitute, he said, and does have some savings. He lives in a rental house and qualified for unemployment benefits.
“They’re not much, but they pay my cable bill,” he said.
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