Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff (center) talks with King County Executive Dow Constantine while riding light rail from the then-new Angle Lake station south of Sea-Tac Airport in 2016. (Ian Terry / Herald file)

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff (center) talks with King County Executive Dow Constantine while riding light rail from the then-new Angle Lake station south of Sea-Tac Airport in 2016. (Ian Terry / Herald file)

Sound Transit chief executive gets ‘an important wake-up call’

An investigation found he has used offensive language and made the agency’s staff feel threatened.

SEATTLE — Sound Transit’s board on Thursday criticized the agency’s chief executive officer for an “abrupt” and “direct” management style, and denied him a yearly performance bonus.

They were reacting to a personnel investigation into CEO Peter Rogoff that started late last year. Numerous employees spoke of a “leadership style, which has been described variously as East Coast, dictatorial, and unnecessarily confrontational.” Some complained informally about Rogoff using profanity at work and making staff feel uncomfortable.

At the same time, several commended his accomplishments in running and expanding the regional transit system, which covers urban areas of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

“Although he can be brusque and forceful, he can be effective,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, who serves as chairman of the agency’s 18-person board.

The internal investigation by attorney Steven Winterbauer, of Seattle, found no legal fault with the agency’s earlier response to the complaints. They were informal and all but one came up during the first half of 2016.

Many board members, however, believe there’s room for improvement — both for Rogoff individually and for Sound Transit institutionally.

The board voted 11-2 to support a motion that will require Rogoff to change his demeanor and his relationships with staff. He must complete a leadership development plan. Three Sound Transit board members will be tasked with checking up on his progress.

For the vote, the board convened for an unusual 9:30 a.m. special meeting. It quickly went into executive session for more than two hours to discuss Rogoff’s annual performance review.

Afterward, Somers also sought to reassure Sound Transit employees that from now on, their concerns will be taken seriously. The board has directed the agency to improve protocols for raising concerns, including with the CEO.

One complaint alleged that comments Rogoff made during a luncheon for Black History Month in 2016 were condescending by implying that black people need more mentoring and assistance than their counterparts in the workplace. Rogoff denied he intended to denigrate anyone, and maintains his comments were taken out of context and misconstrued, according to the internal report.

Another complaint surfaced in September 2017, when he condescendingly addressed a female staff member as “honey” in front of other colleagues. Rogoff later apologized and his apology was accepted, according to a human resource director’s notes.

In a two-page statement, Rogoff said he was proud of his accomplishments in his busy early months after starting in January 2016, when the agency began light-rail service to Husky Stadium. He acknowledged some problems.

“I periodically used profanity in the workplace and, at times, was overly intense in articulating my expectations for performance,” he wrote. “These concerns were significant enough to merit a meeting with the then Board chair and the two vice chairs in June, 2016. They articulated clear expectations for my performance in these areas going forward. I took their direction as an important wake-up call. I obtained a Seattle executive coach and significantly transformed the means by which I seek to achieve results within the agency.”

Somers took over as chairman early last year. He leads a board with two other elected officials from Snohomish County, 10 from King County and four from Pierce County, plus the non-voting state transportation secretary.

Somers said he didn’t become aware of any allegations about Rogoff until last fall, when he was contacted by Sound Transit’s general counsel. In December, the board met in executive session on Rogoff’s performance review. They contracted a private attorney to investigate further. They wanted to know whether the complaints were handled properly and whether they required any special course of action under federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

Rogoff came to work for Sound Transit after a nationwide search.

His Washington, D.C., pedigree offered potential access to the highest levels of federal government — a key asset as Sound Transit pursued a massive regional expansion and grants to help make it possible. Since mid-2014, Rogoff had been working as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s third-highest-ranking official. His portfolio there spanned aviation, highway, rail, mass transit and maritime transportation, according to his online bio at Sound Transit.

Previously, Rogoff served five years as chief of the Federal Transit Administration under President Barack Obama. He also worked more than two decades for the U.S. Senate, much of the time as the staff director for the Senate Transportation Subcommittee, whose leaders included Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.

King County Executive Dow Constantine on Thursday described his first meeting with Rogoff, before he came to work in Seattle.

“I cautioned him that his directness was going to run up against a very different way of acting than we’re used to in the Pacific Northwest,” Constantine said.

Rogoff’s initial base salary of $298,000 when he was hired was set to rise by 5 percent per year. His salary was set to increase automatically to $328,545 on Jan. 1 of this year. His contract is set to run through January 2019, unless extended.

For his performance review in December 2016, the board unanimously voted to give him an “excellent performance award” equal to 7.5 percent of his annual pay. That was in addition to his yearly raise.

Somers said most board members were then unaware of the complaints about Rogoff that had surfaced in the months before.

Most of the behavior in question took place when Constantine was the agency’s board chairman. Everett Councilman Paul Roberts and then-Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland were vice chairpersons.

In early 2016, the agency was drawing up plans for what would become the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. In its final form, the plan included light rail service to Everett by 2036 along with a bus rapid-transit line on I-405 to Lynnwood by 2024. The Link light-rail network also would be connected to Tacoma, West Seattle, Issaquah and Ballard, under the plan.

Voters passed the nearly $54 billion expansion plan in November 2016.

Rogoff’s management problems have surfaced at a time when the agency is under siege on other fronts.

State lawmakers have been working to lower the amount of money most car owners pay Sound Transit in motor vehicle excise tax. Increases for ST3 were calculated using an older formula, also set by the Legislature, that overvalues used cars compared to the open market, meaning higher car-tab fees.

All five Snohomish County Council members recently took shots at the agency, and called for board members to be directly elected, rather than selected from among city and county elected officials. Two voted against reappointing Roberts for another term representing the county on the board.

The timeline for starting light-rail service to Lynnwood has been pushed back to mid-2024 from late 2023, because of higher-than-expected costs. Sound Transit also faces the possible loss of more than $1 billion in federal grant money it has been counting on to build the line from Northgate to Lynnwood.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald net.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

A Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplane test its engines outside of the company's factory on March 11, 2019 in Renton, Washington. Boeing's stock dropped today after an Ethiopian Airlines flight was the second deadly crash in six months involving the Boeing 737 Max 8, the newest version of its most popular jetliner. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images/TNS)
Boeing lost track of up to 400 faulty 737 Max parts, whistleblower says

The claims were detailed in a Boeing inspector’s complaint on June 11 and made public by a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

Ryan Stalkfleet, left to right, and Kenny Hauge, members of the OceanGate submersible crew, explains the vehicles features and operations to Bill McFerren and Kiely McFerren Thursday afternoon at the Port of Everett on December 16, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Everett sub disaster forces global rethinking of deep sea exploration

A year after the OceanGate disaster, an industry wrestles with new challenges for piloted submersibles and robotic explorers.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

People board the Mukilteo ferry in Mukilteo, Washington on Monday, June 3, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Washington’s ferry system steers toward less choppy waters

Hiring increases and steps toward adding boats to the state’s fleet are positive developments for the troubled agency.

Dave Calhoun speaks during a 2017 interview in New York. (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg)
Boeing CEO apologizes for quality and safety issues at Senate hearing

Before the Tuesday hearing, a congressional subcommittee accused Boeing of mismanaging parts and cutting quality inspections.

School board members listen to public comment during a Marysville School Board meeting on Monday, June 3, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. Rinehardt is seated third from left. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Marysville school board president resigns amid turmoil

Wade Rinehardt’s resignation, announced at Monday’s school board meeting, continues a string of tumultuous news in the district.

A BNSF train crosses Grove St/72nd St, NE in Marysville, Washington on March 17, 2022. Marysville recently got funding for design work for an overcrossing at the intersection. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
BNSF owes nearly $400M to Washington tribe, judge rules

A federal judge ruled last year that the railroad trespassed as it sent trains carrying crude oil through the Swinomish Reservation.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.