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Spokane City Council members accused of violating bullying policies

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 24, 2018

FILE – Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, questions leaders of charities groups about what the city can do to make progress with the city’s homeless problem Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 at Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, questions leaders of charities groups about what the city can do to make progress with the city’s homeless problem Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 at Spokane City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The city’s Human Resources Department is investigating four Spokane City Council members after employees reported they had been bullied during public meetings.

The City Council received letters with the complaints against the council members last week, which did not include specific details or examples of what the bullying behaviors may have been.

On Monday, the members voted to send a letter to the Human Resources Department and the City Attorney’s Office saying Human Resources, which reports to the mayor, does not have the authority to investigate council members or their staffs.

The names of the city employees who made the complaints have not been released to council members or the public.

Council President Ben Stuckart, who was the subject of a complaint, said he was not sure what incident it may have arisen from but thinks employees may have notified Human Resources because of the questions council members ask staff during their public presentations. Stuckart said questioning employees on their work and spending is part of their job.

“If people can’t handle being asked questions,” he said, “they’re in the wrong profession.”

Councilwomen Karen Stratton, Candace Mumm and Kate Burke also were the subject of employee complaints regarding their behavior toward staff. Burke said she can’t think of any incident in which she bullied employees. But, Burke added, she is passionate about certain issues and sometimes asks hard questions.

“I’m not at City Hall to make friends,” she said. “But I also don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.”

She said if she knew what the specific allegations were, she would be open to changing her behavior. She said the city’s current investigation does not follow protocol because it was started by an employee in a separate branch of government.

In a letter she wrote to council members explaining the complaints against them, Human Resources Director Christine Cavanaugh said the employees were concerned about possible retaliation. She urged council members not to try to resolve the issues themselves.

She told them an attorney from Bellevue had been hired to interview the employees and present findings to City Attorney Mike Ormsby and her. The four council members also will be provided a copy of the findings.

The complaints are the latest bullying allegations involving the council.

Earlier this year, Burke questioned if Stuckart had bullied her during a council meeting and brought her concerns to Human Resources, which determined Stuckart had not violated the city’s anti-bullying policies.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the mayor’s office was willing to work with the council on the investigation, while ensuring employee complaints are heard.

“We’re not assuming any outcome,” she said. “We’re just trying to be transparent and provide the response our employees should expect from us.”

The Human Resource Department underwent several changes after an independent investigator detailed several issues in a 2016 report with the way the city handled sexual harassment allegations against former Spokane police Chief Frank Straub.

Stuckart said he is taking the bullying allegations seriously, but he said Human Resources’ handling of the complaint was flawed.

He said neither he nor the other council members received any indication that they would be interviewed. He said the complaints would normally go to the City Council president, but since he is the subject of a complaint, they would go to City Council Pro Tempore Mike Fagan.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018 to better reflect the action Burke took when she raised concerns that Stuckart may have bullied her.

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