Montesano Mayor Ken Estes recently spent his time and a bit of city resources scouring the corners of city government hunting for a city employee who may or may not have sent us public documents he says we had no right to have because the documents didn’t come from him first.
What was missing in all of this, however, were the content of the documents.
On Friday, May 28, City Administrator Kristy Powell had staff draft a letter accusing city council candidate Tyler Trimble of looking at pornography on city computers. Trimble was a summer employee for the city in the summer of 2012. Oh, sure, Powell backtracked and changed her mind before sending it, but not before signing her name to the bottom of the letter.
“You are hereby notified that the city will commence an investigation into charges that you have misused a city computer to access pornographic Internet sites and otherwise improperly utilize the city’s computers for personal purposes. These allegations, if true, would constitute violations of paragraph 1) of the city’s computer policy as reflected in Resolution No. 587, copy attached, and specifically Section 3.1 subparagraphs F,G and H; Paragraph 2) Personnel Policy 100-030; 3) Policy 200-003 (“display of obscene or sexually oriented photographs or drawings”); and 4) Personnel Policy 400.004.”
The letter doesn’t stop there. Trimble was accused of “willful violation of the city’s policies, dereliction of duty and inefficiency in the performance of duties; conduct unbecoming an employee of the city; disgraceful conduct; and any other act or failure which demonstrates a lack of fitness for suitability for employment in public service.”
Pay attention to that last line there. The Montesano city administrator signed her name to a letter accusing a city council candidate — who is running unopposed and has no potential write-in candidates out there— of “lack of fitness for suitability for employment in public service.” If that’s not blockbuster news, I don’t know what is.
Trimble is frustrated and he’s angry. And I don’t blame him.
He asked the city to find out how the letter got out there. But, he also wanted to know why it was drafted to begin with. While the mayor personally led the investigation into the letter, Trimble says his second question — WHY — has not been addressed.
And it’s a good question. Are so many investigations and accusatory letters being sent out of City Hall that Powell will sign her name on to anything put in front of her at this point?
The letter was sent to several public works employees, including a few who have accused Powell of sexual harassment — charges that remain under investigation by a special investigator for the city.
What’s unique about the letter written about Trimble, however, is that it was written at a different time than the other letters. Here’s how I know. In every other letter sent to the public works employees, the city resolution number was whited out and then corrected with a different font with the real city resolution number. It’s obvious someone made a mistake in drafting the letter and had to fix it with the right resolution number.
Trimble’s letter didn’t need fixing. It was correct the first time. This means the letter was either written first or written last, with some purpose in mind. But, again, why was it written at all?
Powell says the letter was never sent. A different, less accusatory letter was eventually sent to Trimble asking him to come in as a witness. However, there were several other summer employees never asked to come in to be a witness and there are former employees out there, as well, who never got a letter. The only thing we really get out of the mayor’s leak investigation is that the city doesn’t have cameras on its dumpsters, but cameras that technically aren’t pointed at employees are catching employee actions anyway — and the mayor isn’t afraid to look at the video at City Hall to monitor activities by his employees if it suits his investigative purposes.
We also now know that no one at City Hall is paying attention to who uses their fax machines.
Mayor Estes lamented in a memo he sent to every city employee that no one should be spreading rumors and gossip. But the letters sent to us were facts. Not rumor. It is a fact that the city administrator started the process to accuse a city council candidate of looking at pornography on city computers — all charges Trimble denies and is angry about.
Estes also mandated every employee sign for a letter wherein he says if material is leaked out of City Hall without his authorization it is a “breach of faith and duty.” He also claims “all city employees and council are municipal officers.”
I’ve had at least one attorney and a few other members of the public contact me to let me know that the city is reading the Revised Code of Washington 42.23.070 completely wrong and that not every single employee is bound by it, citing the definition of “municipal officer,” which “shall each include all elected and appointed officers of a municipality, together with all deputies and assistants of such an officer, and all persons exercising or undertaking to exercise any of the powers or functions of a municipal officer.” I’m no attorney, but if I were a city employee, I’d contact my union representative to make sure I have a clearer understanding of the law here. Thankfully, in 2007, the state Legislature also recognized a reporter shield law which, basically, allows me to protect my sources and decline to answer questions as to who my sources are.
In the end, whoever leaked these letters did us all a favor in capturing a moment at City Hall for us that should be discussed and debated. And, of course, the city will be investing in shredders in the coming months. Let us all hope that proper training is being given and the city council insists on providing the funding to give this training so that so-called “draft” letters that have been signed by the city administrator aren’t shredded before the truth comes out. I’ve already put the city on notice not to begin shredding documents related to grievances, harassment situations, letters of discipline and other investigations. Those are certainly subject to the state Public Records Act.
Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at email@example.com