Opinion

City owes public a fair and complete investigation | Roegner

Last week, we considered several questions about the city attorney’s surprising decision to stop the investigation into a complaint filed by Federal Way City Councilmember Kelly Maloney against Mayor Skip Priest.

This week, we take a look at the direction and the scope of the investigation. The biggest problem for the city was that the city attorney apparently directed the investigator to investigate the wrong topic. According to the investigator, “my primary objective was to determine if this exchange (between Priest and Maloney) raised any safety concerns.”

The problem? Personal safety was never Maloney’s complaint. While she may have felt uncomfortable, if she had feared for her safety, she could have easily left the mayor’s office. Her compliant was about yelling, swearing, crying, intimidation and fist pounding. That is a “hostile work environment” complaint.

The investigator should have been directed to review whether the complaint met the standard for “hostile work environment.” And was the behavior a one-time occurrence or a pattern of behavior? If this is a pattern, it is a serious problem. The direction from the city attorney was faulty. This is a particularly troubling error because the city was asked by the media to identify the investigator and the scope in the very beginning and refused.

While there are some things that should be confidential as an investigation is under way, the scope isn’t one of them.

However, the investigator did become aware during the process that the investigation was not a safety case. According to the investigator, some witnesses had no issues with Priest. Since the investigator was focused on “safety,” that’s not surprising.

But one witness told a story very similar to Maloney’s story, including fist pounding and intimidation. The witness also said the mayor can be “sweet, but he can also be a bully.”

Another individual mentioned that an employee who had been in the area had commented “it got pretty loud in there.”

The investigator “did not follow up with an interview with this employee, because, based on Mayor Priest’s admission, I do find that he spoke loudly to Ms. Maloney at times during this exchange.” Almost accidentally, the investigator found the path, but didn’t follow it because she thought the case was about “safety” in the work place, not “hostile” work place.

The investigator should have interviewed the employee because that person had important information. It was loud — but how many voices were loud, and how loud were they? Yelling loud? One or two voices? The answer changes the case to the mayor’s benefit if there were two loud voices, but works against him if the only loud voice was his.

The issue that could have been the most serious was whether Priest had destroyed public records by deleting an email that Maloney had sent him that he felt questioned his integrity. The investigator was apparently never directed to look into the question. If true, this would potentially be an even bigger problem for the mayor than the balance of Maloney’s complaint. Destroying public records is against the law.

Fortunately, the Federal Way Mirror did look into the issue and was able to find the email. For the city attorney to overlook such an obvious potential legal problem for her boss is a surprising error for a seasoned attorney.

The investigator should have followed up on it because of the potential liability to the city and her client. What if The Mirror hadn’t found the email, and another citizen had filed an additional complaint? That could have been a serious problem for the mayor.

The last press release from the mayor’s office seems to suggest that the report is complete and selectively includes words to portray the mayor in the most positive light, which of course, is their job.

However, some in the community have complained that having a publicly paid communications manager, when Maloney doesn’t, gives the mayor an advantage in how the public views the issue. The mayor’s staff had control of the process.

In an interesting twist on the “who’s playing politics” question, some say it’s the mayor because he is the one issuing press releases. Objectively speaking, it appears  Priest may very well have won the short-term battle of public reaction.

However, the report is not complete because it ignores almost all of Maloney’s actual complaint. The investigator made no finding that the mayor had made anyone feel “unsafe.” The mayor was vindicated from something he wasn’t charged with. Then the investigation was stopped by the city attorney amid questionable legal interpretations and faulty direction on the correct topic of “hostile work environment.”

The investigator did find that “Mayor Priest’s style, particularly when he is in his self-described direct mode, was not well received by all those he has business dealings with.”

There are possibly other people to interview as some people only found out about the investigation recently through media reports. Unless the investigation is completed, there isn’t enough information on the record to render a reasoned decision on Maloney’s real complaint at this time.

But investigations are not about “whoever gets the most people to testify for their side wins,” which is why skilled legal direction and investigators are needed. It’s about getting the facts right and reaching a supportable conclusion. What does the evidence say? At this point, we don’t have a complete picture.

In the professional world of investigations, this is not a high level complaint — but the participants make it one. The complaint involves the reputations of visible, important, highly ranked elected leaders who manage and oversee running a large city with hundreds of employees, who are answerable to the public for their conduct. The investigation should be completed and, this time, done correctly. It shouldn’t be left to the newspaper to find facts the investigator didn’t pursue.

Some discussion has been rightfully focused on the city attorney and her actions in stopping the investigation. Unfortunately, requests to meet with her to obtain clarification on her reasoning were denied.

The city should immediately turn over the responsibility for completing the investigation to a respected leader in another county, such as a county administrator, who can use resources that are not professionally related to elected or appointed officials in Federal Way. And Federal Way should pay for it.

Some in our community have made up their minds who to support without even knowing what the facts are. That isn’t fair to either person. The investigator correctly notes that there should be no retaliation toward Maloney as the complaining party, but also points out that one of the other city council members has apparently refused to serve on a committee with Maloney because of her complaint.

If accurate, that’s unprofessional, insensitive and sends a very chilling message to city employees, particularly females who comprise most of the witnesses, and residents about what they can expect from City Hall the next time they have a complaint or feel mistreated by a high ranking city official.

We should expect more from our leaders. Maloney will probably choose not to pursue the issue. But what if she were someone else? An employee with union representation? The city could be looking at a lawsuit for failure to properly perform the investigation and for retaliation.

The city administration is unlikely to pursue a second investigation. That is the wrong strategy. The mayor should want a resolution to clear his name as he campaigns for re-election, as would Maloney.

City Hall should get this case investigated properly and get it behind us — because doing nothing invites suspicion about motivation, and right now, a cloud is hanging over everything … and everyone.

And that “culture of integrity and transparency” that the mayor’s office mentioned in the first press release? It’s hanging by a thread.

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