MONTESANO — The city’s Public Works crew has filed a grievance against Montesano City Administrator Kristine Powell alleging sexual harassment and many other complaints.
Powell denies she’s done anything wrong. The specifics of the issue have not yet been released by the city.
However, Mayor Ken Estes says that Powell is too valuable to the city and he has decided to keep her on the job, instead of placing her on administrative leave.
The issue is just the latest in the ongoing problems between the city administration and the Public Works crew, which has been the focus of workplace harassment investigations, criminal investigations and internal disputes among the crew.
The situation led to a packed City Council meeting Tuesday night, with more than 150 people in attendance. There were so many people that the council had to exit its council chambers and move upstairs to its community meeting room. And, even then, it was standing-room only.
Following a 30-minute closed-door executive session, the city’s labor attorney came back and advised the huge crowd that the city has had a number of investigations and it was taking each of them seriously.
Later, the council approved spending up to $15,000 to hire a specialist to look into the allegations made by the Public Works crew.
But many in the crowd demanded to know why Powell was still on the job, while others who have been under investigation by the city have been put on paid administrative leave.
“Look at all of the people here,” Bruce Clevenger told council members and Mayor Estes to the applause in the room. “We need answers and you’re not giving us to them.”
“If one employee is gone, we couldn’t run our city?” asked Kelley Rogers. “That’s wrong. I wouldn’t put all of my trust in one person. All of our eggs should not be in one basket and I think you should re-think that.”
Meantime, Public Works Lead Russell Burke is entering his 12th week on paid administrative leave as the city investigates allegations that he may have been using city-owned paint for personal use. Burke owns his own painting company, denies he’s done anything wrong and recently filed a claim for damages seeking $400,000 as a precursor to a lawsuit.
The Hoquiam Police Department, which is leading the criminal investigation, recently replied to a public records request that they may need another 45 days to finish its investigation and supply the records for inspection. Police officers recently served additional search warrants in the case.
“All you have is allegations against Russ Burke and he’s on administrative leave,” Mark Sagen told the mayor and council members. “Why is he on administrative leave?”
That comment was said to huge applause and many in the room standing up in support.
Burke’s elderly father yelled out to the mayor at the standing ovation, “Does that tell you something, Mayor!?”
Estes told the audience that Burke was out “on investigation for more a serious (issue) than harassment.”
That comment drew laughter from the audience.
But, Estes again stresed that Powell’s skills as public records officer, chief budget writer and her other abilities were essential to the city and he couldn’t afford to put her on administrative leave.
Estes also confirmed to the audience that the city had taken hold of all of the Public Works employees computers but those should be returned in a week or so. Estes confirmed that the city was doing another investigation of the Public Works employees. Details were not released.
In fact, none of the details of the grievance against Powell has yet to be released, despite multiple public records requests from The Vidette.
Mayor Estes acknowledged the existence of the grievance in an interview on April 29. The Vidette requested for it to be turned over. When it wasn’t, The Vidette sent an email on May 2, seeking a copy of the grievance.
The mayor responded with a May 3 letter from the city, saying it’ll take up to three weeks to respond to a public records request from The Vidette, which just sought the grievance filed against Powell.
“To respond to your request, we must determine whether records exist that would be responsive,” Estes writes in the letter, which he later said was drafted by his attorney.
On May 13, Estes sent another letter which he says was drafted by the city’s attorney.
“You mentioned to me that you were anticipating receiving public records related to a grievance filed after you filed the earlier request,” Estes wrote. “The City Attorney has indicated that the legal pattern is that requests for documents requesting material in the future, are not really valid under the law. He has suggested that I ask that if you wish some material, which may have been created or received after the time you submitted, that you submit a new written request asking specifically for this later material.”
Under protest, The Vidette has filed yet another public records request seeking the grievance. Estes notes that the grievance is more than 60 pages long and it’s taking time to work through.
“There is no attempt to do anything less than meet the State Public Records Act requirements,” Estes said.
The city had previously turned over dozens of pages of investigative records, union grievances and billing reports in compliance with multiple records requests from The Vidette.
During the council meeting, Estes announced that the city planned to turn over the grievance on May 29, allowing the union time to get an injunction to stop its release.
Total costs for attorney services, investigators and other time has yet to be tallied up. At this point, however, the city has spent $25,650 on three investigations and a bill on a fourth investigation is still ongoing. Another $13,186 was spent on labor attorney costs.
Costs are split between the city’s water fund and general fund. The general fund, used to pay for day-to-day expenses, shows a tally of about $10,000 spent so far. Powell said that the city will get reimbursed from its insurance company for parts of the costs and recently received a $5,500 check from the insurance company. The city has a $5,000 deductible.
“Maybe it’s baseless, maybe it’s not, but the hits keep on coming,” Councilman Ken Walkington said. “It’s just one thing after another. I don’t think there’s anyone on the council that’s happy right now.”