Alderwood water district staff emails add to ‘toxic workplace’ claims

A district employee confronted the board of directors at a public meeting about a “culture of fear” among staff members.

Lynnwood

LYNNWOOD — Alderwood Water and Wastewater District employees have complained that management is forcing them to work to the point of anguish, tears and physical pain, district records show.

The district’s human resources manager is among those who filed complaints about General Manager Dick McKinley this year. On May 19, she emailed an outside attorney hired by the district to handle whistleblower complaints, saying she faced retaliation from McKinley for cooperating with past investigations into complaints against him.

The district provided the email, along with other written complaints, to The Daily Herald in response to a records request.

The documents add to mounting claims of a “hostile” and “toxic” work environment under McKinley, whom the board hired in August 2020. This month, a district employee confronted the board of directors about these issues during a public meeting, underscoring a “culture of fear” among staff members.

McKinley has declined to comment on the allegations.

Board President Paul McIntyre said in a written statement that the board “has investigated and will continue to investigate complaints about workplace misconduct.”

“With respect to the General Manager, the Board has taken the results of these investigations into account in evaluating his performance and setting expectations for his future performance,” McIntyre wrote. “Based on the circumstances of the complaints, administrative leave did not appear warranted.”

“The Board disagrees that any employee has been retaliated against for coming forward with a complaint or cooperating with any investigation,” he wrote. “As an employer, the District typically does not discuss personnel matters publicly and it would not be appropriate to comment any further here.”

With headquarters in Lynnwood, Alderwood is the state’s largest special purpose water and sewer district, covering some 40 square miles and serving more than 200,000 people in south Everett and other jurisdictions.

The written employee complaints describe snide comments from management, growing unhappiness among both customers and staff, and profit-driven policy changes.

“It seems that employee well-being doesn’t matter anymore,” a 16-year Alderwood employee wrote in a Feb. 3 email to the board. “That serving our customers is secondary to how the policy is written.”

The employee cited the story of a staff member who needed surgery but continued working, though it hurt to move, because they were afraid to ask for time off for the procedure and worried they wouldn’t have enough time off to recover.

Because the district is so understaffed, customers with questions have to wait longer for answers, the employee noted. When someone has a large overdue balance, the district’s policy promotes unrealistic pay plans, which avoid service disconnections in the short-term but set customers up for failure in the long-run, the complainant added.

Many of the district’s older customers are already struggling to make ends meet with a fixed income, according to the complaints.

“Changes are being made to procedures and policies without looking at the bigger picture and how things will affect our customers and how we serve them long term,” wrote an employee of 16 years. “There is no discussion, no request for input from those of us that work directly with our customers, or how it might affect them or other departments.”

McIntyre said some of the complaints stem from dissatisfaction with a policy change that required employees to return to in-person work as COVID-19 restrictions eased.

“The Board set this policy and it was the General Manager’s job to implement that policy, even though it was unpopular among some employees who preferred to work remotely,” McIntyre said.

The human resources manager reported she was first interviewed by an outside investigator in January. She did not elaborate on the nature of any of the other complaints against McKinley in her own complaint. However, she noted the first investigation determined the allegations were “founded.”

According to the human resources manager’s complaint, McKinley has since remarked to other employees that she will “not be with the District much longer” and excluded her from union negotiations that she is required to facilitate.

She told the board in April that she felt “targeted and retaliated against by McKinley.” But as of May 19, no one had followed up with her about those concerns, according to her email to the outside attorney.

McKinley’s two-year employment contract, approved by the board in August 2020, is set to expire in September. The board can also extend the contract or rewrite it.

Per the contract, McKinley’s employment is “at-will,” so the board can terminate him at any time, with or without cause. He’s paid a base annual salary of $200,000, according to the contract.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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