Communication in Federal Way court clouds judgment

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By Andy Hobbs, Mirror editor

Let’s make two points clear:

1. The employees of the Federal Way Municipal Court work hard.

2. Judge Michael Morgan’s legal tango with the city is a waste of money in these lean economic times.

The meat of this issue is office politics, a hideous monkey to have on your back. An investigation of the court’s work environment, dubbed The Stephson Report, triggered much suspicion when Morgan sued to block its public release in March.

With the lawsuit indefinitely tied up in higher courts, Morgan has formally demanded that the city foot the bill for $36,715 in attorney fees. Morgan said he hired these attorneys to argue on behalf of the court and its independence from the city.

If the report is ever released, the media will pounce on its contents, which Morgan has acknowledged could damage both his reputation and that of the court.

Federal Way can live without eating what’s in that “secret” report. Morgan may actually be doing the city an expensive favor by saving the public from more taxpayer-funded minutiae.

I have a hunch The Stephson Report is a regurgitation of office politics, leftover from a pre-Morgan breeding ground at the court. A few exit interviews conducted by the city before and since Morgan’s election convey varying sentiments on social cliques and management.

In comparison, court employees participating in The Stephson Report likely expressed either genuine frustration or overall satisfaction.

It would be unfair to label Morgan as the sole cause of misery when there are employees who get along with him. But when strong-willed people butt heads, egos can crack.

Mix that with a work environment where one feels overworked, underpaid or both, and the friction becomes unbearable.

A “hostile work environment” relates to office politics, specifically management styles and poor communication.

An extroverted personality thrives off interactions with others, for better or worse. This vocal type of boss will clash with a quieter personality who communicates through a different set of filters and manners.

The differences in communication will fester if left unacknowledged, and power struggles will escalate.

An outward personality could mistake an introvert’s calm demeanor for aloofness or arrogance. A more deliberate speaker could view a true talker as too direct or insensitive. The resulting confusion breeds contempt.

At the Federal Way court, two judges seemingly polarized the court’s all-female (plus Morgan) staff. Lines were drawn and stepped on long before Judge Colleen Hartl resigned last December over a relationship with a public defender.

To help remedy the “hostile workplace,” the Federal Way court recently conducted counseling sessions and team-building seminars, said Morgan, who manages the court.

In a Jan. 17 e-mail The Mirror received through a records request, a court employee thanked Federal Way’s human resources manager: “All of the clerks want to thank you for setting up the meeting with Alex Smith. It is a starting place for us and everyone agrees we will need more sessions because of the ongoing stress/hostile work environment.”

Even if it claims independence from the city, the court still clings to municipal money and manpower.

The court has committed to improving communication at work. Now it must make amends with the mother ship: The city.

First, settle the money issue before the cost unnecessarily surpasses six figures. Then, release that ridiculous report to the media, including the Tacoma News Tribune, which deployed money and lawyers to hunt down a recap of the court’s office politics.

When the lingering stench of dirty laundry finally clears, the court will continue to conduct normal business, however one defines normal.

Judges, as the court’s leaders, ultimately set the tone for the workplace. Morgan, the presiding judge, will be up for re-election in 2009. Voters may pick the court’s boss, but court employees choose whether to stay or work somewhere else.

And when a job opens at the court, someone always takes it.

Mirror editor Andy Hobbs can be reached at editor@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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