Bullying at Spokane City Hall? A $25,000 independent investigation says ‘no’
It took as much as $25,000 to determine if there was a bullying issue in the Spokane City Council.
Some city employees say disagreements between the council and the mayor’s administration have put employees in the middle, creating an environment in which they have been treated with a lack of respect and professionalism, an independent investigator’s report on bullying complaints has found.
The city is prepared to spend that sum to pay the consultant charged with conducting the independent investigation into 49 human resources complaints received last year.
Employees interviewed by the investigator said they didn’t believe council members’ behavior had violated city bullying policies or broken laws, but had left some employees feeling intimidated, humiliated or anxious about interacting with them at public meetings. Employees said they had not had issues with the mayor’s office, only City Council members’ actions at public meetings.
The investigator looked into seven employees’ concerns regarding City Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilwomen Karen Stratton, Candace Mumm and Kate Burke.
Stuckart said he has tried to adjust his tone in meetings since he heard about the complaints but will continue asking hard questions because his role as a legislator is to oversee how the city spends taxpayers’ money.
“Sometimes I ask tough questions that can be read in multiple different ways,” he said, “but the report was crystal clear, it’s just some people feeling that we’re not nice enough and that our tone isn’t right, and I can’t adjust how people feel about that.”
Several employees included in the report said they were concerned council members were taking their frustrations out on staff instead of Mayor David Condon. The report said one employee said staff felt like a “child caught in the middle of divorced parents.”
Stuckart said his disagreements with staff are separate from any issues he has with the mayor. He said one example included in the report – him walking out of the room during a staff presentation on the budget – was because the presentation had inaccuracies, not because of conflict with the mayor.
“When I have a disagreement with the mayor,” he said, “I talk to him about it.”
Condon said late last week he hadn’t reviewed the report on the bullying complaints, but acknowledged differences of opinion exist between his office and the city’s lawmakers on some matters.
“It’s no secret that we have different philosophical looks at certain issues,” he said.
That was the reason for focusing City Hall’s attention and resources on certain joint priorities during the past three years, including improving city streets, supporting construction projects near downtown and setting aside funding for affordable housing, the mayor said. One of those areas called for marketing Spokane as a business and cultural hub, prompting the advertising campaign that became the target of council members’ scrutiny at one of the meetings listed in the report.
Those questioned by investigators said they believed council members’ questioning and commentary were “attacking,” “aggressive,” “dismissive” and “personal.” They also said employee Julie Happy was not allowed to respond to questions but was interrupted by council members who did not support continuing the campaign. Happy said Mumm, one of two council members named in the incident, apologized and was gracious and professional when they later discussed the campaign.
Condon said his staff has been talking with City Council members who chair the weekly meetings – during which lawmakers and city staff experts typically ask questions of each other and finalize policies – about how to make them more productive and ensure professionalism from both branches of government.
“Obviously you’re going to have debates about these issues,” Condon said. “I think, as we look at it, is to make sure that we do it – you can disagree, without being disagreeable. I think that’s what we need to make sure of for our senior managers.”
Burke, the other council member who questioned Happy during the advertising campaign presentation, said she has taken out her frustrations on staff in the past over priority differences between herself and the mayor’s office.
According to the report, city employees said Burke frequently positioned herself as the “only person at the city who cares about the homeless” and sometimes treated the city’s Community Housing and Human Services Department as an enemy, instead of employees of another branch of government also working to end homelessness.
Burke said she used to frequently email her ideas to CHHS and would become frustrated when she didn’t see anyone follow up on them. She said she later realized city staff are just following the mayor’s priorities instead of closely collaborating with individual City Council members.
“It’s not them, it’s the mayor,” she said. “That took me a bit of time to realize that. I took out a lot of frustration on the staff members and that’s not where it needed to be.”
She said she now is focusing on writing her own policy to address homelessness, and only forwards her constituents’ housing and homelessness suggestions to CHHS.
Councilwoman Stratton, who employees in the report said was unfairly critical of the implementation of the 311 program, said she believed hiring an outside firm for thousands of dollars was unnecessary. She said if Human Resources had called council members in individually and told them their actions made employees uncomfortable, most council members would have probably changed their behavior.
Stratton said none of the council members had been interviewed during the investigator’s fact-finding search and criticized the process in a letter to Human Resources Director Christine Cavanaugh and City Attorney Mike Ormsby.