MONTESANO — The city of Montesano had begun its defense in the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former public works supervisor Russ Burke.
The city “expressly denies any and all allegations regarding retaliation, hostile work environment, false statements, discrimination or any other allegations,” writes an attorney for the Christie Law Group of Seattle, hired by the city’s insurance company, in the city’s official response filed Aug. 21 in Grays Harbor Superior Court.
The lawsuit, first filed in July, alleged retaliation because Burke supported Mayor Ken Estes’ challenger in 2011 and “emotional distress” following a series of investigations into Burke, including whether he stole city-owned paint for his private business. Following a criminal investigation, the Grays Harbor Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges.
Burke was terminated on June 17 after being on administrative leave for more than four months as the city investigated various allegations. Records turned over by the city show that Burke was fired not because of the paint allegations, but because he and his attorney wouldn’t come in for an interview. Burke’s attorney said they were distrustful of an independent investigator that had previously labeled Burke a liar. In April, Burke filed a $400,000 damage claim against the city. Now, he seeks “judgment against Defendants in an amount to be proven at trial in the form of lost wages and emotional distress.”
In turn, the city is asking for the judge to dismiss the complaint and award attorney’s fees to the city.
The response notes that prior to taking office as mayor, Ken Estes visited the Public Works Department, spoke with Burke “and offered him a pin related to his election.” But it denies that Estes ever held a grudge that Burke declined to take the pin and threw a party for Estes’ mayoral challenger, Doug Streeter, who is now a councilman.
Burke’s lawsuit notes that he applied for a new public works director position and was interviewed by an interview committee composed of non-employees and unanimously selected to be the new director. Burke alleges that he was not hired because Estes told him he was “not quite ready.”
The city denies Estes ever said that.
“In fact, Mr. Burke was offered the position of public works director but declined it because he would have no longer been entitled to union membership,” the city’s response states.
The response expressly denies that the city “engaged in a campaign to target Mr. Burke” with “frivolous disciplinary actions, hostile working conditions and disparaging remarks” or that Burke is suffering any kind of “emotional distress.”
Grays Harbor Superior Court has not yet set a date for the Burke trial and the official answer from the city is likely the first of many filings done from either side of the dispute.
Burke is also appealing his termination through the city’s grievance process.
Meantime, The Vidette recently was granted access to Burke’s personnel file through a public records request.
The file shows an absolutely clean record up until 2011 — there’s no discipline letters and no complaints.
For that year, City Administrator Kristy Powell gave Burke an evaluation, where she asked Burke to show more leadership in the disparaging talk she said was occurring in the city’s Public Works division. It was the first time in Burke’s 27-year history with the city that anything negative was put in his file, the records show. After, a March 21 note in the file states that the city needed to “define expectations” with Burke, consider him for “leadership training” and to “stop the workplace negativity.” After that, in mid-2012, Burke received a layoff notice from his position of public works supervisor as the city had decided to eliminate that position in wake of hiring Public Works Director Rocky Howard. Through a union bargaining process, Burke was able to take a newly created Public Works Lead position and still stay with the union.
There are several notices of investigations that come after, asking Burke to come in for questioning and almost half a ream of paper of correspondence between Burke’s attorney and the city’s contractor labor attorney before Burke was ultimately terminated last June.