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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel warned to stay out of Spokane Valley City Hall except for meetings during investigation into his behavior

Spokane Valley City Council Position 3 candidate Al Merkel, now a city council person, debates during a Northwest Passages Pints & Politics forum held Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at the Mirabeau Park Hotel & Convention Center.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel has been warned to stay out of Spokane Valley City Hall as a result of an investigation opened into his behavior toward city staff.

City officials opted to open an investigation into Merkel after complaints were brought to the attention of city administration.

While the investigation is ongoing, officials have requested that Merkel not enter City Hall unless it is for the weekly council meetings on Tuesday evenings, according to an email City Manager John Hohman sent Merkel earlier this week.

Merkel said he does not plan to comply with the request.

He alerted The Spokesman-Review of the investigation in what he said was an effort to be transparent. He provided emails of his interactions with Hohman regarding the investigation.

Hohman confirmed the city has received complaints regarding Merkel’s interactions with staff members, and that an outside law firm will handle the investigation. He said he cannot provide more information until the investigation is complete.

The investigation is the latest controversy involving Merkel in his two months as a city councilman.

He’s often been the center of testy arguments with fellow council members during public meetings. His social media activity, primarily on Nextdoor, has been called into question and was found in violation of city policy. Most recently, he received a warning from Spokane Valley Code Enforcement for violating a city ordinance regarding unlicensed vehicles.

Merkel said he does not know what the complaints at the city could be about because his interactions with city staff have been minimal. He usually goes to Hohman or Deputy City Manager Erik Lamb with questions or concerns and only interacts with staff when they direct him to do so, he said.

Hohman requested Merkel meet him and Spokane Valley Human Resources Director John Whitehead Tuesday to discuss complaints they received regarding interactions Merkel had with city staff.

Merkel then requested the complaints, the dates they were filed, the names of the staff members who filed them and a copy of the policy that calls for investigations like the one Hohman described.

“This is government, so I have constitutional protections, you know,” Merkel said in an interview. “I have the right to confront my accuser.”

Hohman did not disclose the nature of the complaints to Merkel, but he did provide him with the city’s policies on discrimination and harassment. Hohman requested that Merkel agree not to enter City Hall unless for council business, in order to protect the city, the complainants and Merkel from potential litigation as the investigation is ongoing.

“The nature of these complaints require investigation, and so the City will be engaging a neutral outside investigator to provide the City and the Council with the facts surrounding the allegations,” Hohman wrote.

Hohman also requested Merkel not interact with any city staff other than Hohman and Lamb, noting that while the complaints are being investigated, the complainant or complainants have a right not to be retaliated against.

Merkel and the city could be found liable for retaliation even if the original complaints are found not to be unlawful harassment or discrimination.

“Simply put, it is best practice and in your, the involved staff’s, and the City’s best interests to limit your time at City Hall to scheduled Council Meetings while the investigation is pending,” Hohman wrote.

In a later email, Hohman explained that under Washington’s antidiscrimination laws, employers have an obligation to protect employees from being subject to a hostile work environment, and must take appropriate steps to investigate allegations of unlawful harassment or discrimination and implement protective measures.

“If the City does not fulfill these duties, then the courts can hold the City monetarily liable for the employees’ damages, including but not limited to emotional distress, lost wages (either because they took time off due to harassment-induced stress, or the harassment was so intolerable that they quit City employment), and the employee’s attorney fees and costs incurred in holding the City responsible,” Hohman wrote. “As you are aware, such lawsuits are common.”

Merkel is currently being sued in Spokane County Superior Court for allegedly harassing, fostering a hostile work environment and discriminating against a female employee during his time as chief financial officer and acting chief executive officer of the Valley’s Sequoia Detox Centers in 2020.

Merkel did not comment on the lawsuit, saying he did n’t know any details of the case and had not been served as a defendant.

“I was CEO of the company and companies get hit with lawsuits like this all the time, so no comment,” Merkel said.

Hohman told Merkel that if he did not agree to the measures of avoiding City Hall and any interactions with city employees, he would have to bring the issue to the City Council to act upon.

“If you do not agree to the above protective measures during the investigation, then I will have to choose between two actions: (a) take no action and violate my and the City’s obligations under anti-discrimination laws and the City’s personnel policies, or (b) bring the issue to City Council for it to act upon. I cannot and will not abdicate my legal responsibilities as City Manager,” Hohman’s letter said.

Merkel has few and perhaps no allies on the council, as evident in past meetings, so he said he interpreted that request from Hohman as a threat.

“It seems like a very clear threat,” Merkel said. “It seems like such a drastic measure, if there even are specifics to these quote, unquote complaints.”

Merkel said he does not intend to agree to only enter City Hall for council meetings. He does not believe the city has the authority to ask him not to enter the premises, and thinks not having access to the building will prevent him from doing his work as a city council member.

“I don’t feel like I understand the authority to do that, and most importantly, I don’t feel like that is in the interest of my constituents,” Merkel said. “That is not in the interest of Spokane Valley residents who brought me to this position. That really disenfranchises them.”

Deputy Mayor Tim Hattenburg said he was aware complaints had been filed against Merkel, but did not have any additional information. Anecdotally, he’s heard city staff members frustrated by Merkel’s behavior.

“I really don’t know any of the particulars,” Hattenburg said. “Since he’s been elected and sworn in, he’s been pretty demanding of the staff, and not in a professional way.”

Hattenburg said the third floor of City Hall, where council members have open cubicles to work next to city administrators and staff members, is undergoing a renovation due in part to Merkel.

The city has considered changing the open-air layout of the floor for years, Hattenburg said. The current layout is not conducive for work: It can get noisy, there’s little privacy and there is only a handful of safety measures preventing someone with ill intent from walking in.

“Quite a bit of it doesn’t have to do with just Al,” Hattenburg said. “We had talked about that before he even ran for office.”

But some of the decision to renovate now did have to do with Merkel, Hattenburg confirmed. The new layout “should be more conducive for work,” he said.

Councilwoman Laura Padden said the city has a responsibility to protect their employees and must follow the proper steps to ensure Merkel’s alleged behavior does not open the city up for a lawsuit.

“This is a serious deal,” Padden said. “The city has to take action at some level until the investigation is completed.”

She said she looks forward to seeing the results of the investigation, and hopes it is completed in a timely manner so the council can return to focusing on important issues in the Valley, like hiring more deputies for the Spokane Valley Police Department.

“The sooner, the better,” Padden said. “We can put it behind us then. It’s eating up a lot of energy and resources as well.”

Councilman Rod Higgins, with whom Merkel has locked horns at several public meetings, said Merkel can be boisterous, domineering and has a tendency to stretch the truth. He was not surprised to hear complaints had been filed against him.

“Right now he’s the proverbial bull in the china shop, banging around and making noise to get a reaction, or get attention,” Higgins said.