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 Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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