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Shawn Vestal: City Hall bullying report underscores problems between administration and council

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

A couple of months back, the city received the results of a “fact-finding report” regarding concerns of city staffers who felt they were mistreated, and possibly even bullied in violation of city policy, by members of the Spokane City Council.

The 11-page report, produced by a Bellevue attorney at a cost of up to $25,000, included lengthy descriptions of interactions between seven unnamed city staffers and four named City Council members.

It quotes and paraphrases only these city staffers, leaving no inflammatory adjective by the wayside. Staffers described the behavior of City Council members as “attacking,” “aggressive,” “challenging,” “rude,” “intense,” “dismissive,” “grandstanding,” “harassing”…

The report to the city’s human resources director and city attorney neither quotes nor paraphrases a single one of the accused four council members. And it neither quotes nor paraphrases any other witness, of which there appear to be many.

That’s a very high price per fact.

The report, produced by attorney Katherine Weber, concludes there was no bullying. Even the employees reporting concerns “generally” agreed there was no bullying, though they saw a lack of civility and respect.

In any case, though, such a one-sided report – whatever the reason for the one-sidedness – is of such a limited value that it’s hard to see any value whatsoever. After all, the complaints of the seven employees were already on hand at City Hall when the report was ordered up; a formalized report that simply furthers the already-known complaints, with no other perspectives from anyone else – and especially those whose actions are the subject of the complaints – simply can’t have enlightened anyone at City Hall about anything.

Furthermore, in trying to ascertain why council members were omitted from the report, what you run across is further evidence of the chasm of dysfunction between the administration and the City Council.

The administration notes that the council objected to the investigation from the start, and therefore left the “perception that Council Members would not want to speak with Ms. Weber,” city spokeswoman Marlene Feist wrote in a message.

There was indeed a lot of argumentative back-and-forth between the council and the administration about the investigation prior to its completion. In written communications between the parties, you definitely do not get the impression that the council members were eager or maybe even willing to participate.

But council members say that the form of the inquiry was a problem from the get-go, with the idea being that the investigator would produce a report to which they would then be allowed the chance to respond after the fact. That struck them as a stacked deck, because it is; a fair accounting of the situation would include talking to the people involved before writing your conclusions.

After all, Weber herself, in the introduction to her report, notes that part of her brief was to consider whether city policies had been violated. Doing so without engaging the accused is a strange way to proceed.

Council President Ben Stuckart, whose occasional sharp tongue is no secret and who was one of the council members who was criticized for an instance of rude demeanor, said he believes a fair report would have offered him the chance to respond before it was written. In this case, he said, the report was finished, and he was offered the chance to respond, which he saw as a flawed approached.

“They produced the report, gave us the draft and said (the investigator) will talk to you about the results of the report,” he said.

Some council members chose to do so, including Candace Mumm and Kate Burke, both of whom were objects of complaints about their treatment of staffers. Their comments are not included in the report itself.

The report’s complaints involve several different incidents over a couple of years. Most deal with occasions when administration representatives were giving presentations to council members, and they say the council members spoke rudely to them, interrupted and challenged them, sometimes did not allow them a chance to finish, and were otherwise uncivil.

Spokeswoman Feist said the city’s human resources department decided to seek an outside fact-finder because it would be awkward for human resources employees, who work with both council and staffers, to take it on.

“In the end, what it said was we need to be nicer to each other,” she said. “I really wish we could have learned that from it.”

On the substance of the report, there definitely seems to have been some rudeness by council members involved, such as Burke challenging a city employee about the plan for dealing with homelessness; there are also moments of seemingly extreme and even petty sensitivity on the part of staffers, such as a complaint from an administration staffer who expected to be first on a meeting agenda but who was forced to go second.

Some of it reflects poorly on council members, but some of it seems like the normal rough-and-tumble of debating and discussing issues of public importance, and some grows out of true problems of transparency on the part of the administration.

“We’ve adjusted,” Stuckart said. “If people think there are problems with how you question them, you do have to adjust your behavior.”

The civility tank is empty between the Condon administration and the council, and if you look at it closely you can find portions of blame everywhere.

But the one-sided Weber report – from conception to execution – stands merely as a document of that dysfunction, in part because it didn’t seek enough facts.