Judge critical of Lynnwood mayor’s treatment of female staff

LYNNWOOD — Mayor Don Gough intimidated, cursed, disrespected and berated his former top assistant, an administrative law judge ruled last week.

In a tersely worded, six-page order, Judge Robert Krabill described Gough’s working relationship with executive assistant Stephanie Simpson and other female employees in harsh terms.

“Mayor Gough is a corpulent man of six feet,” Krabill wrote. “The claimant is a slight woman of five feet three inches. Mayor Gough treats male subordinates with an appropriate level of respect. He usually refers to them by title. When he uses curse words in conversation with them, he apologizes.

“On the other hand, Mayor Gough treats some female subordinates with inappropriate contempt. He refuses to refer to them by title or last name, even Assistant Police Chief Karen Manser. He verbally attacks them and demeans them.”

And although he never touched Simpson, Gough used his bulk to intimidate her, the judge wrote.

Krabill’s order said Simpson was the victim of sexual harassment as defined by law. Simpson worked for Gough for more than three years arranging his schedule and was his liaison with other city departments, community and business leaders.

The ruling comes as Simpson seeks unemployment benefits, which the state previously denied her. The judge’s ruling compels the state to pay her unemployment.

In March, she left her $60,000-a-year job after accepting a $49,500 severance agreement and agreeing not to sue the city.

Her case sparked a four-month investigation by the city into Gough’s relationship with his city staff. A report on that investigation is expected to be released by the city at 5 p.m. today, unless Gough objects and seeks a court order that the report be kept sealed.

The City Council this week approved a resolution urging the mayor to resign, based on the still unreleased report. On Tuesday Gough said he had not read the report, which was e-mailed to him, and intended to go through it with his lawyer on Wednesday.

In a letter to the City Council this week, five top-level female City Hall employees say the work environment under Gough has become intolerable, saying they’ve been subjected to “hostile and harassment-based working environment.”

At the same meeting, the council changed the city’s employment policies and practices to require virtually all hiring, promotion or disciplinary action under Gough’s control to be submitted for review and confirmation by the council.

Reached Wednesday, Simpson said she did not want to talk about the unemployment ruling, which gives one view of what was happening at City Hall for the last few years.

Attempts to reach Gough late Wednesday were unsuccessful. Gough, who is an attorney, was a City Councilman for 10 years before he became mayor in 2006.

Simpson initially applied for unemployment benefits in early June. The state rejected her request on June 22.

There were two issues for the judge to decide. One issue was whether Simpson quit her job without good cause — meaning for a good reason under the law — or was discharged for misconduct.

The other question was whether she actively sought a job beginning June 2, the day after her work with the city officially ended.

Krabill ruled last week that Simpson was looking for work and had “established a good cause for quitting.”

Simpson attended an appeal hearing Aug. 6 with her attorney, Alex Higgins. Also attending were Paula Itaoka, the city’s acting human resources director, and deputy police chief Karen Manser, acting as Simpson’s witness.

In the ruling, Krabill ordered the state Employment Security Department to pay unemployment compensation to Simpson.

The judge wrote that Simpson had given birth twice during her employment under Gough and the mayor made inappropriate comments by saying, “She is doing the mommy thing.” Gough regularly made fun of the full-spectrum desk lamp she used, on a doctor’s recommendation, to ease postpartum depression.

When Simpson applied for a promotion, Gough confronted her by saying she had ruined their relationship, Krabill wrote.

Simpson at the time complained to the city’s human resource manager, who talked to Gough. His behavior did not change, Krabill wrote. Instead, he ordered three city directors not to speak to her.

Itaoka said the city didn’t take a position on Simpson’s appeal. The city’s lawyers also didn’t attend, she said.

Krabill’s decision will cost the financially strained city up to $570 a week for a maximum of 26 weeks, or just under $15,000. The city’s finance director resigned earlier this year, and the police department is facing serious cuts.

“Had I realized the way it would go, I probably would have brought legal counsel,” Itaoka said.

Itaoka said the judge heard an incomplete version of Simpson’s work relationship with Gough.

“The judge listened to everything he heard and put it in there without the benefit of the investigative report,” she said.

Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429; ohalpert@heraldnet.com.

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