The investigation into the complaint of alleged misconduct by Mayor Skip Priest by Councilmember Kelly Maloney was concluded by the investigator, Eileen Baratuci, an outside, independent attorney from Port Townsend who specializes in arbitration, mediation and investigation of such disputes, with a very telling observation.
First, based on her observations and conversations during the investigation, she became concerned this incident was being used to accomplish political purposes beyond the incident in question.
Apparently undisputed is the fact that Maloney did consult with Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell, who encouraged her to file a complaint rather than exercise other options available to her. As the mayor's opponent in the upcoming election with a direct vested interest in a negative outcome of any such investigation, Ferrell could and should have recused himself from any conversation about it and referred Maloney to the city attorney for guidance, particularly if she legitimately had concerns about hostile work environment conditions created by the mayor toward employees.
That is clearly a legal issue with significant liability implications for the city. Instead, Ferrell jumped into the fray, giving Maloney advice that could exact the most political damage to his opponent.
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."
Since the investigation was concluded, several things have developed, which lend credence to the investigator's observations and concern. First and foremost is the emergence of Priest's opponents and Ferrell's supporters loudly denouncing the investigator's work and decrying the fact the investigator should have investigated the mayor for a host of issues over and above the incident with Maloney.
For them, this should have been a witch hunt and fishing expedition to try to find something or anything that could be used against Priest. The hateful, nasty tone of some of the commentators in this newspaper speaks for itself.
More troubling, however, is the use of highly inflammatory suggestions and innuendo by non-city employees who likely have no firsthand knowledge regarding staff that left the employment of the city due to a hostile work environment created by the mayor.
The city has very specific policies and procedures related to hostile work environment complaints that protect the victim and levy a heavy penalty against the offenders. These issues were beyond the scope of the initial investigation into the incident between Priest and Maloney, and the investigator rightfully raised the red flag.
Unfortunately, columnist Bob Roegner feels he is qualified to substitute his judgment for the judgment of the investigator, city attorney and PDC. He apparently thinks an ongoing investigation in the midst of a campaign would be fair to Priest. I question Roegner's fairness and objectivity toward the mayor, particularly given recent comments in his columns questioning Priest's performance. A witch hunt and fishing expedition serves no legitimate public interests or purpose.
If there are credible allegations of hostile work environment conditions for city employees, then perhaps an independent inquiry may be warranted. Before we jump into that however, some preliminary work needs to be done to ensure that these are in fact credible allegations.
If the Federal Way Mirror wants to act as a responsible newspaper instead of simply fueling rumor and innuendo with endless publication of comments that have highly questionable basis in fact, you could assign a reporter to conduct an inquiry and actually report the facts. Maybe you could determine who has left the employment of the city and for what reason given. Records in the personnel department can quickly provide such information.
Where are the documented cases of hostile work environment concerns raised prior to the Priest/Maloney incident? What are the names of the employees who left under these conditions? It is time to back up this scurrilous rumor mongering and innuendo with facts instead of just smearing the mayor in this newspaper as is being done.
One thing is clear. A political strategy has been put in motion to define Skip Priest as an ill-tempered, abusive, bullying CEO of the city. All they need to do is create a public perception with no regard for the truth of it. It will keep Priest on the defensive for the campaign and shift focus away from the legitimate issues and contributions he has made to the city.
Of course, the best antidote is the truth. Those who know and have worked with Priest have found the claims made by Maloney a bit of a stretch, which raises some questions about her credibility and judgment. That is not to say she may not have been rightfully aggrieved by the incident in part or that Priest conducted himself in the most appropriate way. There is no doubt there was a conflict and both parties probably wish it had never happened. Outside of campaign season, this incident may have played out very differently.
Jerry Vaughn, Federal Way