Investigation examines complaint over mayor's behavior

The city has released an investigation of a complaint against Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest over his alleged behavior during a meeting with a city councilmember.

The formal complaint was filed May 9 by Councilmember Kelly Maloney after a conversation she had with the mayor the day before. The complaint describes a nearly 30-minute meeting in which the mayor was angry, pounding his fist on the desk and "lacing the 'F' word throughout his statements as he was yelling." The complaint alleged the mayor was trying to intimidate Maloney and claimed the mayor also cried.

To investigate the complaint, the city hired attorney Eileen M. Baratuci of Arbitration, Investigation and Mediation (AIM) Services based in Port Townsend.

Released on Tuesday, the 10-page report summarizes the attorney's interviews with Priest, Maloney and people who may have witnessed the initial confrontation or the mayor's "direct mode."

The attorney reported that the difference between accounts of the conversation between Maloney and Priest is how the mayor's behavior was characterized. In Priest's version of the conversation with Maloney, according to the investigation:

• He said his voice was loud, but he did not yell at her. He said he spoke to her in his "direct mode." He said he did not pound his fist on his desk or stand during their conversation. He said he was sitting behind his desk.

• He said he didn't curse. "When he ran through a re-enactment of his conversation, he used the word 'damn' in a way I did not find intimidating or offensive," the investigator reported.

• He said he did not cry or get emotional during his conversation with Maloney on May 8.

• He said Maloney got defensive when he tried, according to the report, to tell her to "not use the word 'I' so much and focus on 'we.'"

• He did not recall Maloney telling him not to talk to her "like that."

• He said he apologized to Maloney for speaking to her in "direct mode." When addressing an email Maloney had sent to him that questioned the funding model for a future performing arts center, Priest told the investigator that speaking to Maloney in "direct mode" was "not one of my best moments," and that he "raised his voice, but did not yell."

The investigator interviewed four witnesses. Only one reported having an unpleasant interaction with the mayor. That particular witness described an encounter where Priest was "direct with me." The witness said Priest pounded his fist on the table and told her "if you know what's good for your political career, you will listen to me." The witness said most people don't see this side of the mayor, and said "he can be sweet, but he can also be a 'bully' to get his own way," according to the report. The witness said some employees are afraid of the mayor because he fired some high-level employees.

The investigator concluded that Priest's "direct mode" style of communication was not well received by all who have seen it, and reported that Priest said he does not use his "direct mode" much.

"It is not surprising to find challenging conversations, disagreements, and differences in leadership styles in dealing with the difficult business of running a city and planning for the future," the investigator wrote. "Mayor Skip Priest may have irritated or upset some of his colleagues, but he's done nothing that would warrant pursuing this investigation any further."

Political implications

Priest is running for re-election to a second term in 2013. The investigator reported a concern that the complaint filed by Maloney "was being used for political objectives."

The investigator cited a state law (RCW 42.17A.555) that prohibits the use of city resources "directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition."

The investigator said the law applies to this case, especially if the investigation were to continue or expand while supported by city resources. The report noted that Maloney was offered a mediation opportunity with Priest after the May 8 conversation as an alternative to filing a formal complaint and requesting an investigation.

The same week that Maloney filed the complaint, Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell officially announced his candidacy for mayor. Ferrell was one of the people Maloney told about the complaint before she filed it. The complaint became public when the city released it to the Federal Way Mirror in response to a public records request.

According to the investigator: "Although I do not make any specific findings about who notified the press of Ms. Maloney's complaint, the fact that Ms. Maloney told Mayor Priest's political opponent about it raises the possibility that the complaint itself, regardless of the investigative findings, could be used to elicit as much damage politically, as possible, over a single conversation."


• To read the full investigation, click here.

• To read The Mirror's initial report about the complaint filed last month, click here.


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