Alderwood Water & Wastewater District water quality tech assistant Matt Williams looks at the clarity of a water sample taken from the artesian well located along 164th 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 along 164th Street on April 2, 2018 in Lynnwood. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Water district keeps leadership, for now, despite staff woes

Investigations found Alderwood General Manager Dick McKinley broke ethics rules, more than once.

LYNNWOOD — Alderwood Water and Wastewater District employees are questioning the district’s future, as the contract of its beleaguered general manager expired last week and its Board of Commissioners kept mum on whether he would remain in the position long-term.

Dick McKinley, who staff members have blamed for a “toxic” work environment, remains the general manager, even though his contract expired at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. Now, he’s simply a district employee without a contract, like other employees, according to a statement from the board.

“No other District employee has an individual employment contract with the District and neither of the two prior General Managers had an employment contract,” said the statement, emailed to The Daily Herald by district attorney Joe Bennett on behalf of Board President Paul McIntyre.

“The Board of Commissioners will not comment publicly on a personnel matter involving any District employee, including the General Manager,” the statement says. “The Board of Commissioners values all employees and welcomes their concerns and suggestions about how the District can improve and better serve its customers.”

Since February, multiple investigations into employee complaints have found that McKinley made disparaging remarks about staff members while other employees were in earshot, in violation of the district’s ethics code, records show.

“The common thread of these complaints is that you spoke negatively about another employee or their work performance in the presence of or within the hearing of another employee,” McIntyre told McKinley in a June 2 email. “We have conducted multiple independent investigations into these complaints, and the investigator found that you, more likely than not, made the comments as alleged in the complaints.”

“It is particularly disappointing that there was another sustained complaint after the initial complaint and investigation concluded,” McIntyre added in the email, which the district provided to the Herald in response to a records request.

The district also disclosed the written findings of one of those investigations. The report, along with more than 60 pages of written comments from a 2021 employee survey, add to a growing body of evidence that supports the claims of staff members who have publicly spoken out against McKinley.

The grievances range from low wages and lack of vision among leadership to changes in policy that downplay customer service. But one common thread is flippant attitudes from management that employees say has made them feel ignored.

McKinley was “out of town” last week, according to an automatic reply from his district email address.

On Friday, McKinley said in a text message that he “can’t comment.”

“It is a different standard,” he added in another text. “Employees can say whatever they want, even if it’s not true.”

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. The district has roughly 160 employees, about half of which are represented by a union.

Brenda Bannon, hired by the district to investigate one of the complaints, found that McKinley “made some frustrated and disparaging statements” about one administrative employee’s performance to another in a copy room.

“These were brief, in-passing remarks,” Bannon concluded in her investigative report, dated Feb. 4. “The underlying performance issues could have been treated more discreetly and without boasting or complaining in front of another administrative employee.”

“The evidence additionally supports a conclusion that this workplace relationship is nearly broken, to the extent that respect has been diminished on both sides,” reported Bannon, whose firm is based in Seattle.

McKinley “did not deny the conversation,” Bannon wrote, “but instead stated he did not recall making the statements. The GM doubts he would make the statements attributed to him.”

He’d already spoken about this employee’s performance to the district’s human resources manager in a “less than professional manner,” according to the investigation.

“Previously, he had been collegially counselled by HR about demonstrating more professional workplace conversations consistent with AWWD culture, and not talking about … employees in public arenas that could be heard by other employees,” Bannon wrote.

The district’s HR manager later filed a formal complaint against McKinley, saying he retaliated against her for cooperating in the investigations. On May 19, she emailed her complaint to an outside attorney who was the designated contact for whistleblowers, records show.

Since then, the HR manager has resigned from her position. She worked her last day on Tuesday and declined to comment on her departure.

Alderwood Management Analyst Mitchelle Harvey complained last spring that McKinley 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.

McKinley is white. Harvey is black. She confronted the board at a meeting in July, alleging commissioners discriminated against her by not documenting the findings of the investigation into her complaint.

Harvey says 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, even though there had been multiple complaints against McKinley.

In the past six months, the board has repeatedly convened closed-door executive sessions to discuss “personnel matters,” but has taken no public action afterwards.

McKinley’s two-year contract, approved by the board in August 2020, gave the board the right to terminate him at any time, with or without cause. His base annual salary is $200,000.

Though they have not publicly amended his contract, commissioners made a list of recommendations and expectations for the general manager to work on ahead of his performance review this fall, records show.

“Work on building constructive and collaborative working relationships with departmental leadership,” one bullet point says. “This means being open to staff input, actively listening, and explaining decisions, particularly when you don’t agree with a staff request or recommendation.”

More specifically, the board advised that McKinley begin regular one-on-one meetings with department heads, work with the employee’s bargaining unit, and take staff input into account during the budget process.

In early July, per the board’s recommendations, McKinley reported on the progress he’d made, including establishing regular meetings with management staff and department heads and helping staff provide input for a strategic plan and other district policies.

Employees’ frustrations with McKinley’s leadership, and workplace conditions overall, date back more than a year. In response to an employee climate survey taken in the fall of 2021, staff members submitted dozens of negative remarks.

A sampling of comments:

• “Our culture has gone backwards since the beginning of 2020. Many employees don’t feel valued or included in the decisions of the District. Our knowledge and experience are not considered, and we are not told about big decisions until after they are already made. We try to provide input and are ignored.”

• “I feel the district overall is changing from a very pro customer/community place to becoming more like a private company focused only on making money.”

• “Morale is just plain awful. It feels like we are going to implode. A lot of unhappy employees. The Board has offended most employees, including management.”

• “Everyone knows they can go somewhere else and make more money with less responsibility so the constant turnover is not conducive to team building.”

• “Since teleworking was rolled back and we were forced to return to the office with no COVID protection and our Board has resumed old school thinking, no one really wants to be here. We showed we could perform well remotely but it is like that experience never happened and we are trapped.”

• “The communication from the GM has been barbaric. It’s clear he doesn’t value us.”

In February, ahead of an executive session to discuss employee concerns, McKinley emailed the board a document that categorized the complaints and summarized responses from district leadership.

Under the “hostile/toxic environment” category, the document says there’s “no real evidence of this.”

“No one was yelled at, called names, disciplined or in any other way treated badly — the perceptions appear to be based on the bereavement issues and telecommuting.”

A couple employees had previously complained that they were unable to take bereavement leave when a loved one passed away. But according to management, that’s because the deceased relatives were not relationships covered by the district’s bereavement leave policy.

Regarding staff turnover, McKinley’s summary says HR “is preparing a report that reviews individual staff resignations including the reasons for leaving.”

“To portray that many are leaving because they are unhappy is arguably disingenuous,” says his note.

Alderwood senior utility worker Car Duffy, president of the local union, said in a recent interview that employees continue to leave the district at an “unsustainable” rate. He counted six, in addition to the HR manager, who have departed since the end of July.

“I know that people are actively looking for jobs right now,” said Duffy, of AFSCME Local 1811A. “Some of them aren’t necessarily shy about saying they’re looking for jobs because we are currently in a situation where employees don’t feel valued or respected or anything.”

The bargaining unit has repeatedly told the board the district is on “a very big downhill slide,” he said.

“If it keeps going in this direction, we will lose more employees,” Duffy said. “It needs to change.”

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

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