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Investigator clears Powell of harassment claims

Kristy Powell.
Kristy Powell.

MONTESANO — An independent investigator has cleared Montesano City Administrator Kristy Powell of allegations that she engaged in sexual harassment, age discrimination and retaliation following a complaint by three Public Works employees and two clerical staff members at City Hall.

Jim Webber, whose website says he has more than 20 years experience as an employment attorney and has experience in hostile work environments, released his report on July 8.

Although Webber’s report clears Powell, it does identify more than just one “isolated incident” where Webber confirmed that Powell may have slapped an employee’s butt, put an arm around an employee’s shoulder or said an inappropriate term to an employee. However, he says those incidents shouldn’t constitute a trend.

On April 26, the five employees alleged inappropriate behavior from Powell dating back several years and teamed together with their union to file a grievance against the city.

“I have never been called upon to review a matter that involved so many different claims being made by several different people against a single individual,” Webber wrote. “The claims against Ms. Powell include suggestive sexual innuendos, inappropriate body contact, flagrant age discrimination, bullying, poor executive judgment, intimidation, sequestration of employees against their will, dictator behavior and a host of labor relations violations — including at least one that has already been fully addressed through arbitration.”

“There are no findings to indicate that city employees are subject to a hostile work environment,” Mayor Ken Estes said in issuing a press release with a copy of the report. “The factual findings indicate no significant issues with City Administrator Kristy Powell’s performance. I have the highest confidence in her and her abilities. The city will respond to the union grievance in the normal course of events.

CHANGED BEHAVIOR

In an interview with The Vidette, Powell says, “I will never be a touchy feely person again. My culture is one of loving and touching and being close to people and will I be close to any of these people? No. Because I don’t want to offend them. I believe this has been a well organized smear campaign to offset what was going on with other individuals in the city because I am the lightning rod for what goes on in the city. Everything goes through me. I’m the one that everybody decided would be beneficial to smear.”

The grievance alleges “inappropriate actions and statements of a sexual nature” directed at two public works employees and, in general, “bullying and threatening remarks and actions directed toward Clerical and Public Works staff,” according to Webber’s report.

A copy of the grievance was turned over to The Vidette following a public records request. The grievance states a laundry list of complaints and goes on for 50 pages. All of the complaints are directed at Powell.

“This is not a personality problem between individuals; this is a serious management problem with one common denominator, the city administrator,” the grievance states. “She is a bully in every sense of the word and has a position of power over everyone.”

The grievance alleges “harassment of all kinds, including sexual.”

“She instigates problems between employees,” the grievance states. “We have a right to have a hostile-free environment in which we work. The city has an obligation to provide such an environment. The city is aware of the problem, but does nothing to change it. In fact, they encourage it by fully supporting her actions and giving total power over everyone and everything. She is the city administrator and the human resources department. Her husband is on the city council. We should not have to be in constant fear of her moods and behavior. We should not have to be in constant fear of what accusation will come next. We want the behavior stopped immediately and permanently.”

Webber notes that there were also allegations of “age discrimination” against two clerical employees for an unwanted transfer of one employee and taking job responsibilities away from another public works employee because of his age.

“Strangely, some employees said that Ms. Powell is biased against older workers; another claimed the bias is against younger individuals,” Webber wrote in his investigation.

He added that there were also accusations where “knowledge was limited to hearsay or gossip” that employees “heard in the workplace.”

For instance, since the grievance was filed Powell was allegedly “over pleasant” at the office and allegedly “sequestered” two employees in her office “and interrogated them about the complaints.” Neither were found to be true.

“ It is significant to me that many witnesses cited the alleged sequestration as proof against Ms. Powell,” Webber wrote. “They seemed to believe the sequestering was a fact even though none of them had personal knowledge about whether or not Ms. Powell pressured the two employees. I do not believe these witnesses were lying since they believed what they were telling me was true. However, I conclude that the tale of sequestration was nothing more than rumor. It is disturbing that individuals would not only believe a rumor to be true but would also spread it to others”

“I also note that the present complaints did not arise in a vacuum,” he wrote. “Several matters have been investigated during the past year that relate to alleged misconduct or even criminal activity by employees other than Ms. Powell. Internet searches reveal a number of issues at the City that have been subject to controversy and public attention. I recognize the strong possibility that the present complaints against Ms. Powell are a direct response to the previous controversies, some of which remain under review.

“In fact, several witnesses expressed their personal opinion to me that the complaints against Ms. Powell are a ‘smoke screen’ to distract from or devalue pending claims against another city employee,” Webber wrote. “It is suspicious to me that most of the complaints now raised against Ms. Powell were not raised in the past. Employees explained that they feared retaliation or additional bullying by Ms. Powell if they ‘spoke up.’ However, at no time during my interviews did anyone provide an example of retaliation by Ms. Powell that could be substantiated and no one provided anything other than than gossip or hearsay to support their beliefs that they would be subjected to adverse consequences if they raised concerns about Ms. Powell. Employees feel perfectly free to raise strong allegations at this time; it is unclear to me why they would not have felt free to raise the concerns closer in time to the alleged events.”

Powell was accused of allegedly placing an arm around an employee “and then asked him to leave City Hall when he removed her arm from his shoulder.” She allegedly called the employee sexual nicknames and when the employee ripped his jeans, the employee alleged. “Hee would have to show her where his jeans were ripped before she would authorize him to buy a new pair even though the rip was in a “private area.”

The other employee alleged that Powell once brushed her breasts against his back while reaching for a coffee mug in the employee break room and slapped the Public Works employee “on the behind.”

Webber said the employee “seemed credible when describing the experience based on his demeanor and apparent embarrassment about the incident,” but Powell did not recall the incident taking place, however, she told the investigator that it is “not in her nature” to slap anyone on the butt. The incident may have happened back in October of 2011.

“I was bent over at a printer table looking through the phone book when Kristy Powell came up behind me and slapped me on the behind,” the employee wrote. “I didn’t know what to do as I was then on the phone with the company. I immediately left City Hall and called my wife. She told me that I have to say something, but I told her I was afraid of retaliation.”

“It is more likely that she did make contact with him than not,” Webber wrote, adding that the employee “does not allege that she slapped him at any other times and no one else alleges slapping. Therefore, I conclude that if the alleged conduct took place, it was an isolated incident.”

Webber also said that the employee “appears credible” when describing an incident where Powell may have brushed her breasts against his back while reaching for a coffee mug.

“Although I do not agree with his assessment that Ms. Powell was making contact on purpose, I believe it is more likely than not that Ms. Powell inadvertently brushed against (the employee) when they both reached into the cupboard at the same time,” Webber wrote.

However, Webber did not sustain allegations that Powell “pressured” a city employee to talk about a sexual relationship one time eight years earlier with another city employee. And the investigator said that other allegations including looking at an employee’s ripped jeans as some kind of deviant request made no sense either.

ALLEGATIONS ‘LAUGHABLE’

Powell, who is married, says that the allegations against her were “laughable,” and she just wants to move on.

“We want the negativity to stop,” she said. “Putting a hand on someone’s shoulder? In my defense, no one ever said it was a problem. No one ever told me they were uncomfortable.”

In a written statement, Powell adds, “I vehemently deny that I have sexually harassed any employee or bullied anyone. I have asked for accountability and equal work for equal pay. I believe this grievance is a cheap smear campaign as a smoke screen for the criminal investigation ... We have had to make hard decisions as the last two administrations have tried to correct 20 years od ‘Good Old Boy’ behavior. It has been costly to me personally but I refuse to ‘set the bar at ground level.’ This administration has expectstions of employees and works with them to provide cost-effective measures and better service. We need to ask more of public servants as citizen stakeholders, managers, legislators and employees. We have the opportunity to be effective and provide excellent government while we provide essential cotre services that the citizens need. We cannot do this with constant grievances and investigations initiated by employees.”

Powell notes that the sexual harassment allegations occured mostly in 2011 and 2012 and during that time the city and insurance company paid for two sexual harassment training sessions.

“In this training, the employees were informed that victims must speak up immediately if anything occurs,” Powell said.

That didn’t happen, the investigation found.

“A hostile work environment investugation conducted by William Curtright did not uncover any indication of sexual or inappropriate harassment. Two different mayors have been elected and a new public works director has been hired. Nothing was ever said. No reports were made until a member of public works was put on administrative leave for what appears to be missing city-owned property.”

Although she recently put her house for sale, Powell says she has no plans on quitting her job or moving out of the city.

“We’re really trying to move on,” Estes said. “We want to get on to city business now. This is just occupying way too much time.”

Under the grievance process, the union will be able to respond and make comments about the city’s investigation.

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