Lake Stevens reprimands public works chief

The city ordered Eric Durpos to take training after complaints about angry workplace behavior.

LAKE STEVENS — The city’s public works director became so aggressive during an argument with co-workers one morning early this year that two crew leads filed complaints with police.

Hardly a month later, a letter reached city officials signed by 10 public works employees airing grievances about their boss, Eric Durpos. By then, the city was well into an internal investigation of Durpos’ behavior. The police chief had seen no evidence of a crime in the complaints about the workplace blowup, and forwarded them to human resources.

It took two months to sort out. Durpos received a reprimand in late March for rudeness and incivility. It requires him to take more than 40 hours of management classes and attend a training on workplace civility.

“While I appreciate the stress and frustration you’ve been under with the high demand to get a great many projects completed with limited resources, we need to work together to find a constructive solution to prevent this from happening in the future,” City Administrator Gene Brazel wrote in the reprimand letter.

The Daily Herald obtained the complaints, the letter and related documents under state public records laws. Initially, the complaints were withheld by the city, which cited a then-active investigation.

The review of Durpos’ behavior wasn’t the only investigation Lake Stevens undertook this spring. The other also related to public works projects, along with broader management issues.

The city hired outside experts to look into supposed misdeeds. The allegations were outlined in two documents: the letter from employees, which also addressed Durpos’ behavior, and a lengthy list of complaints, delivered anonymously.

Of the 35 allegations, such as performing drainage work without permits and preferential treatment, the investigators found no serious violations by city staff. Nearly all of the accusations lacked merit, the investigators concluded. However, they noted the city faces challenges related to rapid growth and changes in leadership.

No city in Snohomish County has grown as quickly as Lake Stevens, which has more than quadrupled in size and population since 2000. Leaders in city government chalk up some of the public works problems to growing pains. In their view, higher expectations and a new mentality are some of the changes that need to take place.

“We are pressing hard to get things done in this city because it’s been sitting around for way too long to not move forward,” Mayor John Spencer said last week.

He said he’s put a heavy workload on Durpos and other managers, and claims there’s been resistance from employees reluctant to adapt.

“I had one public works guy say, ‘Can’t we go back to the way things were?’ ” the mayor said. “I said no. This isn’t the same city.”

The city has budgeted for more positions in public works, including another manager, according to city documents. Some employees say it’s to put a buffer between Durpos and the crew.

Spencer said the new hires are to keep up with workload. Having someone to manage day-to-day operations should help Durpos focus on major projects. The mayor called the idea of a buffer “nonsense.”

It didn’t seem nonsensical to employees who, in their letter to the city, called the work environment under Durpos “unhealthy.”

“As a director he should be held to the highest standards possible but the administration has failed to do so,” they wrote.

In their complaints, the leads described Durpos yelling, approaching one of them, slamming a water bottle down on a desk and threatening to make their lives “a living hell” during a January meeting. Other employees later said they could hear the shouting from other parts of the building. One of the leads also wrote about a comment Durpos made that it was a mistake to give keys to women, a statement that several co-workers corroborated.

Employees told human resources Director Teri Smith about another meeting where Durpos said he could change their schedules. They said he threatened to make it difficult for them to get time off and would “bankrupt” an employee on leave by not letting him return to work as soon as he’d like.

“(T)he behavior is not what we would consider acceptable by any employee, especially a member of the management team,” Smith wrote to one of the employees after finishing her investigation.

Smith’s letter informed the employee that Durpos’ behavior “does not rise to the level of a hostile work environment,” but assured him it wouldn’t happen again.

Durpos told Smith he felt it was the employees who had created a hostile work environment, by playing pranks and disrespecting him. By his account in the HR report, he told employees that he had been flexible with breaks and that they work 5 ½ hours for 8 hours of pay, but that he would start to “go by the book” with their schedules. He told Smith that he believes the workers feel entitled and don’t realize how good they have it.

“Durpos state(d) that all construction workers should be OK to be yelled at and then be able to continue their day … ” Smith wrote.

Durpos declined to comment for this story.

Brazel, the city administrator, noted in the March reprimand that Durpos has faced many challenges, including “a very aggressive list of complex projects.” He counseled Durpos against raising his voice “in an angry or frustrated manner,” making derogatory comments or threatening to retaliate against employees.

“We still firmly believe you are the right person to keep us moving forward on these projects and are willing to commit to helping you succeed in improving your professional management style,” he wrote.

In notes from January, Brazel wrote that Durpos had shared concerns about practical jokes by the crew such as taking his lunch, pouring water on his chair and turning up the heat in his truck.

“Some of it I would call fourth-grade behavior,” Spencer said. “And that brought us to the point where Eric (Durpos) lost his cool. And immediately that led to the review of his behavior.”

The complaints by public works employees weren’t the first concerns about Durpos’ leadership. He started his job with the city in March 2017. Within weeks, a Lake Stevens police officer wrote an email to a commander after meeting with Durpos. The public works director raised his voice and was hostile, according to the officer. In 15 years with Lake Stevens, he’d never been spoken to that way by a city official, he wrote.

Durpos apologized in an email.

“Boy I apologize if that’s how I came across … I can at times seem like I come on a little strong but I was in no way upset with you,” he wrote.

Durpos previously worked in the cities of Monroe and Colville. His salary in Lake Stevens is $139,472 a year.

Along with their concerns about Durpos, employees have alleged they were asked to cut corners and perform work without proper design, review or permitting.

The city hired two outside investigators: a professional engineer who previously was a public works director in multiple Washington cities and a former city human resources director for Marysville. The cost was covered by insurance, Spencer said. The investigators reviewed documents, interviewed city employees and visited project sites.

When it was over, they had a few recommendations. In one case, they suggested the city have the state Department of Ecology review a project that rerouted water to prevent pooling on the street. Others had to do with adhering to requirements for wetlands and providing wheelchair ramps. They suggested the city provide employees with better information about projects and permits.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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