In a season that has already seen several twists and turns, we now have another one. A big one.
Newly appointed Federal Way City Councilmember Kelly Maloney has filed a complaint against Mayor Skip Priest alleging that he yelled at her, cursed at her, pounded his desk with his fist, cried when discussing Jim Ferrell's candidacy for mayor, and attempted to intimidate her.
She says this happened during a meeting with the mayor to discuss a downtown project and the performing arts and conference center (PACC), about which she felt misled. She also said she will provide additional details.
Maloney further alleged that Priest told her in a previous conversation she shouldn't have sent him an email that questioned his integrity because now it was in the public domain and subject to public disclosure — and that he would delete his copy. If he did, that could constitute destruction of public records, which is against the law.
Not surprisingly, the allegations have captured public attention. And with both officials up for election, it would be naive to think the episode won't be part of the election discussion. Their relationship prior to the incident would seem to have been cordial, as Maloney had served on an informal citizens group that met with the mayor to provide feedback.
Casual readers with little understanding of human resources and legal criteria would be advised not to jump to conclusions because you happen to know either party. There are always unexpected twists in any investigation, and things may or may not be what they seem. Unfortunately, many have already made conclusions, and rumors abound.
In a press release accompanying the public release of the complaint, Priest said he was disappointed with her inaccuracies and her version of events.
The press release caught many by surprise, but as a seasoned public official, and one who may be facing a difficult re-election, Priest was likely trying to get ahead of a story he knew was going to be a difficult political problem for him.
The press release allowed him to put his view in the public arena to try and shape public opinion. However, it also provided quotes that could be an issue later. Maloney responded that she was concerned the facts had been mischaracterized by Priest.
In the complaint, Maloney did provide names of possible witnesses and names of other individuals she claimed had a similar interaction with Priest that she witnessed. She also said this was the second time Priest had treated her in this manner. The first time was prior to being appointed to the council. She said it wasn't as bad the first time and she was the one who cried.
The city attorney has hired an outside investigator to look into the allegations and report back. We don't know what direction was given to the investigator. Was the investigator told to just investigate the specific complaint, as the press release seems to suggest? Or was the investigator given the latitude to look into other behavioral or legal issues that are also included in the complaint? What about the additional information Maloney said she will submit? She said she is concerned city employees may be in a hostile work environment, as she is aware of other incidents. If so, why wasn't it reported earlier?
She needs to turn in all the information she has and let the investigator follow the trail of facts.
The city's press release said no sanctions or requirements could originate from this type of complaint for either party. It is too soon in the process to know for sure, but that may be true for Maloney as the complaining party. But the statement is likely based on the interpretation that the mayor, unlike a city manager, is not supervised by anyone who would have direct authority to discipline him if he were found at fault. That does not mean the mayor couldn't face sanctions. If the charges are found to be accurate, the council could suggest several remedies to the mayor, such as training. They couldn't force any discipline on him, but public pressure might make a difference. The council could also censure him, and although it has no substance, a censure would be an enormous political problem for him. However, these options have political risks for the council as well.
And Priest's opponent for mayor, Jim Ferrell, is the leader of the council. The council appears split in its support for the candidates, so any council discussion would be political dynamite.
The city's press release seems to ignore the possibility of more serious charges, such as destruction of public records, coming to the surface. If sustained, the legal issues could get very complicated and the council could ask state authorities, such as the Attorney General or State Auditor, to step in. Breaking the law is serious.
That is why the depth and breadth of the directions to the investigator become very relevant. And for both parties' sake, the investigation has to be credible. It's possible witnesses didn't hear or see anything — and then we have only one person's word against another, and credibility and probability become more important.
If the only witnesses are the mayor's staff or employees, the public may have objectivity questions. If witnesses or others who say they had a similar interaction with the mayor tell similar stories to Maloney, you have the possibility of a "pattern of behavior," which elevates the stakes and the consequences. If the direction to the investigator is narrow, and other people who may have relevant information aren't sought out, then questions regarding process credibility arise.
The issues would seem to be easy. Did the mayor yell at Councilmember Maloney or not? Did he curse at her or not? Did he attempt to intimidate her in some way or not? In their phone conversation, did he say he was going to destroy public records, and did he? Did he directly or indirectly by his comments encourage Maloney to destroy public records? Did Maloney destroy public records? Maloney's statement said she can't find the email. She said she will provide more detail. Does Priest have more of a story to tell beyond his comments in the press release?
But here is the big problem. There were only two people in that room, and they both dispute the other's version of events. For the two individuals involved and the public trust to be maintained, the investigation not only has to be objective and fair, but, to use legal jargon, it must also "appear" to be fair to any outside third party. Third parties are usually thought of as lawyers, judges and the media. The public at large calls it the "smell test."
The investigator must sift through all this information, and more, to arrive at a fair and honest conclusion. And the city must err on the side of a full unhindered investigation. Anything less will not satisfy the public's desire for "a culture of integrity and transparency," to quote from the city's press release.
Most objective people want the race for mayor and seats on the council to be decided by the issues, not an investigation of elected officials' behavior. Is that still possible? We will have a better idea when we see the results of the investigation.