Alderwood Water & Wastewater District water quality tech assistant Matt Williams looks at the clarity of a water sample taken from the artesian well located along164th Street on April 2, 2018 in Lynnwood. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Alderwood Water & Wastewater District water quality tech assistant Matt Williams looks at the clarity of a water sample taken from the artesian well located along164th Street on April 2, 2018 in Lynnwood. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Water district employee alleges toxic leadership

Staff angst about Alderwood’s general manager flared last week. Commissioners say they’re listening.

LYNNWOOD — An employee of a local water and sewer district says its governing board failed to address a “culture of fear” among staff members since a new general manager took the helm in 2020.

Alderwood Water and Wastewater District Management Analyst Mitchelle Harvey, a Black woman, alleges the district’s Board of Commissioners discriminated against her when it did not document the findings of an investigation into a misconduct complaint she filed against General Manager Dick McKinley.

In the spring, Harvey took her concerns to the board and the district’s human resources department. She complained in an email that McKinley, a white man, disrespected her and her coworkers when he made himself the focus of conversation at a meeting of the district’s Employees of Color Advisory Group — and then disparaged Harvey and the group behind her back.

Harvey said the board hired an outside attorney to investigate her complaint, but she was only given a “verbal summary” of the investigation and instructed not to discuss the findings with anyone. She was told there was no written report, she said, even though there had been multiple complaints against McKinley.

She confronted commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday night.

“I believed that with enough evidence, you would take appropriate action,” said Harvey, who has worked for the district since 2018. “From where I stand, nothing has been done, and the general manager has become emboldened. He continues his unprofessional and unethical behavior.”

McKinley declined to comment on Harvey’s allegations. In an email, he told The Daily Herald he “can’t speak about personnel matters.”

Board President Paul McIntyre said in a written statement that the board “is aware of complaints and opinions shared by various employees and takes this feedback seriously.” McIntyre did not provide specifics. Instead, he said the district “typically does not discuss personnel matters publicly, and it would not be appropriate to do so here.”

“To the extent warranted, the Board has investigated some matters and responded as appropriate under the circumstances. At the same time, the Board remains committed to effectively and efficiently managing the public resources entrusted to it.”

In recent months, the board has convened 11 closed-door executive sessions to discuss “personnel matters,” with no public decisions, according to Harvey.

Tension has been mounting between employees and the district’s management for more than a year, according to current and former employees.

With headquarters in Lynnwood, Alderwood is the state’s largest special purpose water and sewer district, covering some 40 square miles and serving more than 200,000 people in south Everett and other jurisdictions.

According to Harvey, more than 40 district employees have quit since McKinley became general manager. That’s roughly one-fourth of its staff.

Alderwood’s warm and welcoming workplace culture began to dissipate when McKinley arrived, amid the pandemic in September 2020, said Katie Courtney, a former billing clerk for the district who worked there for more than 20 years until she quit in February.

“They’ve lost every bit of that company that used to be a family and is now just — you’re a number,” Courtney said. “They have no compassion for anybody.”

Courtney said she finally left because management denied her three days off to go to a funeral service for her aunt, who was like “a second mother.”

“I had over 300 hours of sick and vacation time combined,” recalled Courtney, who has since moved to Texas. She was told that, because the district was understaffed, she couldn’t miss more than 12 hours of work, she said.

“I’m very surprised that the board has done nothing,” Courtney said. “I think that they’re just trying to let Dick ride out his contract and not make any waves and save face.”

McKinley’s two-year employment contract, approved by the board in August 2020, is set to expire in September. The board can also extend the contract or re-write it.

Per the contract, McKinley’s employment is “at-will,” so the board can terminate him at any time, with or without cause.

He’s paid a base annual salary of $200,000 according to the contract.

McKinley replaced longtime General Manager Jeff Clarke, who left the position under the terms of a six-figure separation agreement. The separation agreement permitted Clarke to announce his “retirement” at the beginning of 2020.

Harvey drew parallels between the secrecy shrouding Clarke’s departure and the confusion among staff about McKinley’s current standing with the board.

“The board didn’t communicate anything. Jeff just resigned one day. Employees were trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s the same thing that’s going on now,” she said during an interview. “The board’s not communicating with us. The general manager is not communicating with us. That is not how it’s supposed to work.”

Commissioner Donna Cross said the board is working on the issues “behind the scenes” and “definitely listening and taking some very positive steps. She did not disclose details, saying personnel matters are confidential to protect employee privacy.

“However, things take time,” she said. “We do not make rash decisions. We try to think things through very carefully.”

Cross attributed some of employees’ frustrations to the pandemic, which resulted in many working exclusively from home before returning to the office full- or part-time.

“People feel disconnected,” she said. “They haven’t been in the workplace together”

But local union president Car Duffy, a senior utility worker, said the problems with management persisted after staff adjusted their day-to-day operations to adapt during the pandemic.

“You can only really blame COVID for so much,” said Duffy, of AFSCME Local 1811A. The bargaining unit represents about 80 Alderwood employees.

“I have not seen this amount of turnover in my almost 15 years here,” Duffy said. “This is outrageous.”

An employee survey taken in 2021 found that morale was on the decline. Fifty-nine percent of employees said they “like or love” working there, down from 84% who answered the same way three years earlier, according to a summary of survey findings dated Jan. 4, 2022. Less than half of employees surveyed felt the district recognized their contributions, and 40% said they were looking for employment elsewhere. They cited lack of competitive pay and benefits, as well as an overwhelming workload, says the summary Harvey shared with the Herald.

After reviewing some survey results and receiving other feedback, the board invited employees to air their grievances at a board meeting last February. “The Board feels that these communications deserve further consideration,” board President Paul McIntyre told staff in an email, which Harvey forwarded to The Herald.

Harvey and a few other staff members spoke at that meeting, according to the minutes.

Two finance technicians said they felt customer service was no longer a priority. One of them led by saying it was hard to speak in front of management because of the fear of retaliation.

Another employee, an asset manager for the district since 2013, expressed the need for more clarity about the district’s vision and mission. He said there were other lapses in communication and transparency, including the end of an employee newsletter and a policy that once allowed rank-and-file staff to attend management meetings.

Commissioner Larry Jones remarked during the February meeting that the survey highlights had only recently been shared with the board. But employees pointed out the answers were collected months earlier.

Michael Rainey, then Alderwood’s union staff representative, spoke of low morale among employees and fear of retaliation for speaking out. He questioned why employees were being forced to voice their concerns during the public meeting, with McKinley listening, when the union had requested a more private forum to discuss the problems.

“We know retaliation is prohibited, and there are policies in place, but we all live in the real world, too,” Rainey said in a Thursday interview. He’s now president and executive director of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, Council 2, which includes Alderwood’s unit.

Rainey noted that district records of employee concerns have apparently been “redacted” to downplay the seriousness of the issues. He cited the meeting minutes from the February board meeting and the survey findings summary, saying both of the documents omitted significant feedback from staff.

“It was very brave of Mitchelle to go out there and speak her truth,” he said.

Early this year, Harvey complained that McKinley had ignored invitations to attend one of the meetings of the Employees of Color Advisory Group, an informal gathering meant to provide a “safe space” for staff members of color to talk.

He also missed opportunities, Harvey claimed, to commend staff for their extraordinary effort to keep customers’ faucets running during the pandemic, even when many of them had extra responsibilities and worked remotely.

“You asked for my comments. I gave them,” she told the board Tuesday. “And the courage that it took made no difference and was actually used against me.”

“You leave me no recourse,” she concluded, “but to seek legal representation.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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