Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Investigation into Valley Councilman Al Merkel finds ‘pattern of disrespectful and intimidating behavior’ toward city staff

During a press conference Thursday, May 9, Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel said an independent investigation cleared him of “legal wrongdoing” related to his interaction with city staff. Merkel will continue to be sequestered from most city staffers after the investigation also found a pattern of disrespectful behavior.   (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel will continue to be sequestered from most city staffers after an independent investigation found a pattern of disrespectful behavior toward city staff.

The investigation was launched in early March after a city staff member filed a formal complaint against Merkel alleging “improper communications and behavior” and after other city employees shared safety concerns, according to a news release from the city.

“The report found he frequently belittled and berated them in the conduct of their duties,” City Manager John Hohman said. “This created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. The end result, really, is that this conduct wouldn’t be acceptable in any workplace and shouldn’t be acceptable in the City of Spokane Valley.”

In one incident, a female city council member was asked by Merkel to stay after a council meeting to talk, according to a witness and the council member, who is not named in the report. Merkel stood between the council member and the door, got in her face and began yelling at her, a witness said.

The council member said Merkel was “super aggressive. He gets really close to you. I tried to leave. He would not let me leave. He blocked the door, continued to yell at me and I just kind of shut down.”

A witness backed up her account and eventually got another city employee to disrupt the confrontation. The two walked the council member to her car.

“He was very short with her, very much what I would’ve said in her personal space and not allowing her to exit the room,” the person said, according to the report.

Merkel said the councilwoman in question was Mayor Pam Haley, and that the interaction was “totally mischaracterized,” and insinuated Haley may have stretched the truth to attack who is now her campaign opponent.

Haley and Merkel filed this week to run for the state Senate seat representing the Valley, Green Bluff, Liberty Lake and the other jurisdictions that make up the 4th Legislative District.

Haley confirmed she was the councilwoman involved in an interview Thursday afternoon.

Haley said her involvement in the investigation was not politically motivated, noting that she did not file a complaint after the incident and that it came to the attention of the investigator only after staff members who witnessed the interaction described it during their interviews. The investigator then spoke with Haley about it.

Haley said initially she was shocked by Merkel’s behavior that evening because she had not experienced anything like it in a professional setting. She said she started to get more concerned when he appeared to prevent her from leaving the room.

Haley said she was grateful staff intervened as she “shut down,” adding that it may be attributed to her PTSD from an abusive relationship earlier in her life.

“That’s exactly what it reminded me of,” she said of the incident.

Her husband was also upset by the experience, Haley said, and now attends the Tuesday meetings and walks Haley to her car afterwards. Staff members told the investigator they will walk Haley to her car if her husband is unavailable.

Merkel stressed that Haley did not file the claim herself.

“As I continue to make clear, if no one tells me there is a problem with anything I have done in the moment, and instead only submits these officials claims, it’s hard to make adjustments or see this as anything other than a political hit,” he said in one of more than 20 texts of varying lengths he sent to the newspaper on Thursday.

Brenda Bannon, a Seattle-based attorney with the Ogletree Deakins law firm, conducted the investigation. Bannon interviewed 22 people during her investigation, including multiple city staffers and Merkel’s fellow council members. Bannon also reviewed city policies, internal memos, emails and other communications, the release states.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Merkel called the city’s press release “misleading and disparaging,” arguing staff simply do not like his approach and that he was cleared of all “legal wrongdoing.” He went on to say the complaints of harassment were “trumped-up.”

“It is clearer than ever that this entire investigation has been nothing more than some ineffective council members and city bureaucrats who can’t take criticism, plotting since before I came to office, to fight my valid questions about how the city conducts business with a conspiracy to besmirch me in order to protect their jobs and elected positions,” Merkel said.

He admits that he is “loud and direct,” but argued that’s why voters chose to elect him.

“I wasn’t hired to fit in with city staff. I was elected to represent the ideas that I campaigned on in the way that I do. Voters and constituents in this city want clear answers, and that is what I provide.”

Bannon did not speak with Merkel during the investigation, according to emails provided by the councilman that include correspondence between his lawyer and Bannon.

Initial attempts at an interview fell short due to Bannon’s qualms with some of Merkel’s conditions to participate. He had tried to bring one of his supporters to the interview as a witness, to which Bannon told him he could bring a lawyer. Assurances of the interview being recorded, and the option to have the city pay for a court clerk to serve as a witness, did not satisfy his concerns.

“The investigator thought that was problematic for a lot of reasons,” Hohman said. “Because we have a legal duty and responsibility to keep the identities of witnesses and complainants confidential over concerns of retaliation.”

Merkel said the investigation is politically motivated and is another way to attack him leveled by those who disagree with his opinion and approach. He’s lamented not being provided details of the complaints, who the complainants are and who the witnesses involved in the investigation are.

He points to visible disagreements with fellow council members during meetings, where they’ll raise points of orders against him, or end discussion on agenda items when they feel he’s off course or out of line, as examples of what he perceives as a coordinated effort to stifle his abilities to be an effective council member.

Hohman said the investigation was not politically motivated in any way and was launched solely to determine the validity of the complaints from city staff that described “offensive, intimidating and unwelcoming interactions” with Merkel.

Hohman said he was doing his job as city manager, which includes his legal responsibility to ensure his staff members are able to do their jobs in a safe work environment.

“This is really about his behavior and his bullying interactions with city staff,” Hohman said.

Multiple staff members told Bannon that Merkel made them feel fearful and intimidated, and described interactions in which he belittled or berated them.

Those instances were confirmed by

the investigation but were found not to rise to the level of unlawful discrimination because Merkel treated both male and female staff members disrespectfully.

Bannon determined “Merkel violated the city’s Governance Manual through a pattern of behavior that was disrespectful and hostile toward city staff,” the release states.

Even before he was elected, Merkel yelled at city staff, the report found. Merkel was asked to remove his campaign signs from a roundabout, where they are not allowed. Merkel then yelled at staff, accusing them of “political targeting” despite staff reiterating that no campaign signs are allowed in roundabouts, regardless of whose signs they are.

Following his election, Merkel would frequently announce his arrival at City Hall by saying he was there to “cause trouble,” “cause a fight” or “cause chaos,” the report found. Merkel said any comments of that nature were made in jest.

Merkel naturally has a loud voice, witnesses said, and he refused to speak quietly in his cubical, often loudly calling city staff incompetent.

Witnesses reported Merkel had yelled at staff, towered over them and had gotten in their faces multiple times. Merkel denies ever yelling at a staff member.

Around a dozen staff members held a routine meeting in February with a workplace safety consultant in which they discussed active shooting scenarios, facility issues at City Hall and whether any adjustments would need to be made. Several of those in attendance told the consultant Merkel was “volatile” and one of their “top” “internal” safety concerns.

Merkel interpreted that section of the report to mean staff members were worried Merkel may become an active shooter. Haley said that’s incorrect.

The staff members were asked what their concerns were, and they responded “1. An active shooter situation and 2. Al Merkel,” Haley said.

“These far-fetched fears are clearly disconnected from any semblance of reality and are genuinely insulting,” Merkel said. “Clearly for manager Hohman, providing a safe work environment would include shielding staff from other imaginary fears, like boogeymen and leprechauns.”

Councilwoman Jessica Yaeger said she has had several hostile interactions of her own with Merkel. She said she has decided not to interact with Merkel outside their regular Tuesday meetings due to what she described as his demanding, aggressive nature.

“The bottom line is that as a professional, you should treat people with respect,” Yaeger said.

Yaeger said she’s saddened and disappointed by the report’s findings, but not surprised. She wishes Merkel took the allegations more seriously from the beginning, apologized and cooperated with the investigation because a “normal person” would have reacted in that way.

“The problem is, he will never see it that way,” Yaeger said. “It makes me sick that somehow we’re supposed to work with him for another three and a half years.”

At least one city employee has left their post, and two businesses have decided not to operate out of the Valley due to Merkel’s behavior, Yaeger alleged.

She said Merkel has cost the city and its taxpayers an unknown amount of money due to the costs of the investigation, as well as a good employee and additional tax revenue from prospective new businesses. She looks forward to returning to focusing on the issues addressing the city now that the investigation is complete, although she has some trepidation over how meetings will proceed from here on out.

“When you’re working with a psycho you need to manage that somehow to still be able to conduct city business,” Yaeger said. “It’s been an exhausting five months.”

Merkel said in text that he asked Hohman for the identity of the employee who may have quit and the businesses that pulled out. He questioned how Yaeger knew about this when he didn’t and pointed again to ‘evidence of a conspiracy against me.’ ”

Merkel would have the right to contest the investigation’s findings in front of the city’s contracted hearing examiner, under one of several recently approved changes to the Governance Manual. But Hohman said Merkel does not have the right to bring the case to the hearing examiner because the investigation was opened before the changes were approved.

Hohman limited Merkel’s interactions with city staff when the investigation started, having him work in a separate area of the building than other council members and requesting Merkel only speak with himself, Assistant City Manager Erik Lamb or Human Resources Director John Whitehead.

Those measures will continue due to the investigation’s findings, according to the release.

“From my standpoint, my goal is to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for city staff,” Hohman said. “And the measures that we put in place on the interim basis, I feel, have done a good job in doing that.”

Hohman said Merkel’s workspace is essentially identical to that of his fellow councilmembers, save for Haley, who has her own mayoral office. He does not believe the arrangement will impede Merkel’s ability to do his duties in any way. Merkel had access to all of the same resources as his counterparts during the investigation and will continue to have that access moving forward.

Hohman said Merkel’s counterparts on the council were provided a report detailing the investigation’s findings but would not speculate on whether they will take some form of action as a result. Haley said the council has not had the chance to discuss the report or decide whether they will take action.

“Again, my goal is to provide a safe work environment, but then really get back to city business,” Hohman said. “We have so many great initiatives that we’re working on, from the public safety staffing issues and getting back to our economic development issues. There’s a lot of work that we need to get to, and we’d just like to move forward with that.”

Merkel said he and his attorney are exploring what legal action he could take regarding the investigations and what he sees as an effort to “besmirch my character with really baseless facts.”

“That being said, for me, the most important thing is to just keep advocating for what citizens elected me to do,” Merkel said. “So, I’ll keep doing that.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this report.