LAKE STEVENS — After city Public Works Director Eric Durpos “lost it” at a meeting Oct. 14, union representative Liz Brown urged city leadership to put him on leave and launch an investigation.
“The tone of every organization starts at the top,” Brown, of Teamsters 763, wrote to Lake Stevens City Administrator Gene Brazel. “Eric has to own his own inability to control himself. But, Gene, as the City Manager, if you continue to tolerate this, you own Eric’s behavior, the toxicity in Public Works and the liabilities Eric’s behavior creates for the City. Lake Stevens should be better than this.”
Public works crew member Mike Bredstrand had alleged Durpos made a fist and leaned over the table in his direction at the meeting.
The incident culminated in Durpos’ resignation Feb. 3.
Brown’s email was initially redacted — along with almost every word of a 60-page investigation report by Bellevue lawyer Richard H. Kaiser — until the city relented and released the entire report without redactions last week, in response to a public records request from The Daily Herald.
The city clerk, Kelly Chelin, cited “potential litigation” as the original reason for not disclosing the contents of the report.
As for what changed, the city said the document had been considered confidential and a privileged attorney work product, but “permission for release has been received from the defense attorney who contracted for the investigation and the City is waiving attorney-client privilege with respect to the report.”
Durpos, the subject of past staff complaints for un-permitted work, retaliation and threatening behavior, told the investigator he violated the city’s code of conduct and failed to comply with a directive that resulted from a past reprimand.
He also told the investigator Bredstrand had been a “problem” for years, and gave a list of alleged incidents.
Durpos alleged Bredstrand and others doused his chair with “an unidentified liquid substance” in July 2017, causing his skin to burn.
He also claimed Bredstrand “filed a false police report stating he believed Mr. Durpos was responsible for the horrific beating of an elderly Lake Stevens resident,” in March 2018.
“Mr. Durpos was investigated for attempted murder, deposed twice about his involvement and followed by police on a regular basis,” the report states, which “took a serious toll on his health.”
And in June 2018, Durpos alleged the public works crew dumped a pile of gravel in his driveway “then called a City Council member and accused him of ‘exchanging favors’ with a developer.”
“None of us in that shop would’ve ever pulled a prank like that on Eric knowing how hostile he was,” Bredstrand told The Herald.
Bredstrand is still employed by the city.
In 2018, city staff alleged Durpos made a disrespectful comment about women, threatened staff, used profanity, yelled and slammed a water bottle on a table. The investigator wrote that Durpos took a letter of reprimand following the incident “seriously” in 2018.
The letter asked Durpos “to work professionally with all of your direct reports. This includes not raising your voice in an angry or frustrated manner, keeping your physical movements in check … and not making retaliatory comments or actions toward your subordinates.”
Durpos and Bredstrand had different accounts of the alleged aggressive gesture in the October meeting, the investigator wrote. Durpos said he shrugged in Bredstrand’s direction, but Bredstrand alleged Durpos came a couple of inches out of his seat, leaned into the table at Bredstrand and balled one hand into a fist while raising the other.
Either way, Durpos told the investigator, “I did not comply with that guideline. Well, I did comply with most of it. My voice was not raised. I did not slam my hands on the table, etc. So, I mostly complied with it.”
When the investigator asked whether Durpos’ decision to raise his hands escalated the meeting, he reportedly said, “The situation was already escalated,” the investigator wrote. “It did not de-escalate it. It did not make it worse.”
The investigator wrote Durpos also admitted he violated a provision of the City’s Code of Conduct that requires employees “to treat co-workers, clients, vendors and others in a courteous and respectful manner.” But he denied violating other provisions of the employee handbook, like the civility or workplace violence policies. He told the investigator the incident impacted his “proficiency,” but he said, “I am good and professional at what I do. I have a good track record.”
Bredstrand applied for and received a protection order in Snohomish County District Court. At a hearing, Durpos testified “not in 22 years of doing this job have I ever been under investigation until this.”
The investigator said he asked Durpos about the “apparent contradiction.”
Durpos told the investigator the 2018 “investigation was not an investigation.”
“It was a discussion between me and my supervisor,” Gene Brazel, he said, according to documents. “He just said to sign it (the letter of reprimand). I do not believe that was a full-blown investigation.”
Brazel declined to comment on Durpos’ departure because he said it’s his policy not to comment on personnel matters.
Last month, Mayor Brett Gailey said the city is working to bolster its Public Works department, starting with “figuring out” the management and new software for permitting and asset maintenance.
Aaron Halverson, former project manager for the city, was appointed as Public Works director earlier this year.
‘Quit for the same reasons’
Staff under Durpos’ leadership said they complained about the working conditions for years, but nothing changed.
Sometimes, complaints to Human Resources were “shut down,” and Brazel often protected Durpos, former stormwater coordinator Leah Everett said in an interview with The Herald.
Durpos, who previously worked with Brazel at the city of Monroe, was hired March 6, 2017.
On March 19, 2017, Public Works Inspector Scott Wicken filed a formal complaint with the city’s HR department alleging Durpos “has gone out of his way to create a hostile work environment.”
In the same complaint in 2017, Wicken said Durpos asked him to “leave his jobs alone” and focus on inspecting private projects.
“He also said that if (Ecology) or anybody gives us problems he would take the heat and that we are trying to get things done, not be stopped by me or anybody else,” Wicken wrote.
Employees had similar concerns about Durpos in 2021, which were reported to the Department of Ecology.
After asking Durpos to hire a geotechnical engineer to develop a drainage plan for a park project, an employee “got called into Eric’s office and yelled at for putting this in writing,” the whistleblower alleged.
A whistleblower also told Ecology officials that Durpos instructed employees to waive a required geotechnical report.
In May 2021, an Ecology official asked other state agencies to discuss “concerns we have with their history of unpermitted actions by the Public Works Dept.”
“It’s just — it’s a pattern. We don’t hear about things,” Doug Gresham, a wetland specialist at the Department of Ecology told The Herald.
In his 2017 complaint, Wicken alleged Durpos intentionally dismissed city and state guidelines “when they prevent him from doing what he wants.”
The workplace “climate” ultimately caused at least three staff members to look for employment elsewhere, Everett said.
“I was being asked to do things that I know are not ethical,” she said. “Myself and others … quit for the same reasons.”
Wicken and Bredstrand both testified in District Court that Durpos’ previous behavior led them to seek “medical attention” for stress and anxiety.
Public Works Operations Manager Tyler Eshleman, who worked directly under Durpos, said he always had a positive relationship with his boss.
“His heart is huge,” Eshleman said.
But at some point serving the Lake Stevens Public Works Department became too much, he added.
“I couldn’t handle the stress of being in the paper,” Eshleman said. “I couldn’t handle the stress.”
Durpos and the mayor did not respond to requests for comment.