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For Ed Murray’s staff, a revolving door

52 percent of Murray's office has turned over in 18 months. Credit: Credit: Allyce Andrews

Most public offices have a revolving door of staff. In Mayor Ed Murray’s, however, that door spins a bit faster.

Since Murray took office in January of 2014, 21 people have left the top floor of City Hall. In an office of 40, which includes his Office of Policy and Innovation (OPI), that is a 52 percent turnover rate in about 18 months. In an examination of public records, Crosscut found that, since 1991, that rate is second only to the beleaguered administration of Mayor Paul Schell.

The reasons people have left appear to vary wildly, from ugly firings to higher-profile opportunities in other departments. Details of these departures can be difficult to discern because messages coming out of the mayor’s office are tightly controlled, and because these staffers often go on to work in related fields and firms, making them hesitant to speak on the record. Still, the churn raises a number of questions: Why are people leaving? How abnormal is this amount of turnover? And is this just the reality of politics, or the result of, as one former employee put it, “reactionary management” in the mayor’s office?

Mayor Ed Murray told Crosscut that most of the departures have either been for personal reasons or to take promotions elsewhere, pointing specifically to now Director of the Department of Neighborhoods Kathy Nyland and soon to be appointed Director of the Office of Economic Development Brian Surratt. These promotions, he said, are examples of “why working here is such a great opportunity.”

Not all transitions are as publicized as Nyland or Surratt’s promotions. Murray’s Chief of Staff Chris Gregorich recently moved to a new position vaguely titled the Special Advisor for Strategic Initiatives. The move was not announced publicly, although it seeped out in recent weeks. Murray Communications Director Viet Shelton said Gregorich liked working on big-ticket items like universal pre-k and the $15 minimum wage and this new position would allow him to do that. However, one source close to the mayor’s office said Gregorich was, in fact, being punished for the bumpy rollout of the mayor’s housing recommendations. Murray has said publicly he regrets his office’s response to the narrative that took hold, referencing Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat’s interpretation of a leaked draft of the recommendations.

Shelton vehemently denied that Gregorich was being punished or even demoted. “If that were the case,” he said, “don’t you think I would be fired?” Shelton is not being fired.

Gregorich’s former deputy, Meadow Johnson, also departed recently. Shelton said she announced that she would be leaving to do other things. Johnson, didn’t quite frame it that way. She said her departure was a “mutual decision.” When pressed she said, “The rationale I’ve heard is that I was hired for a position [under Gregorich] and now that position is no longer necessary.”

Johnson makes the 20th departure from the mayor’s office. Rahwa Habte of External Affairs will also leave shortly, making her the 21st.

Losing more than half of employees in 18 months in, say, a law firm or bank would certainly be a surprise, but how does Murray’s turnover rate compare to other administrations? Side-by-side comparisons are a little challenging because, for one, the size and scope of the Mayor’s Office has changed over the years. For example, Murray’s office is nearly twice the size of Mayor Norm Rice’s. As Shelton pointed out, the Office of Policy and Innovation was housed elsewhere under other mayors and three of the 21 were in OPI.

But when broken down into percentages, 52 percent in 18 months nevertheless remains high. Some years from archived staff directories in the Seattle Public Library are missing, but it is still possible to get snapshots of former mayors.

  • From 1991 to 1993, Rice had a 35 percent turnover rate; from 1993 to 1995, it was 33 percent.
  • Mayor Greg Nickels had a 25 percent turnover rate in his first years from 2002 to 2004. That ticked up to 37 percent between 2004 and 2007.
  • Mayor Mike McGinn had 23 percent turnover during his four years in office.
  • The one mayor in the last 25 years that exceeded Murray’s departure rate was Paul Schell: from 1999 to 2001, 59 percent of his office turned over. Go any earlier than Rice and the records are only sporadic, not enough to establish a pattern.

What, if anything, does turnover mean?

In an e-mail sent out to the staff of the Mayor’s Office announcing Gregorich’s move and a number of other changes, new Chief of Staff Mike Fong said these moves were to address “operational issues” within the department. When asked what operational issues meant, Shelton, who worked for Mayor Greg Nickels as well, said, “I think every administration is looking to run more efficiently. You can always run more efficiently and smoother. I remember on the Nickels team, these things happened two or three times.”

Fong, in the e-mail, also said the mayor was shifting into a new phase of work. “We have achieved big things and put new policy in place,” he wrote. “But we’ve talked a lot about how we effectively implement and maintain our momentum by showing we can deliver results and outcomes from our work since last January.”

But according to one former employee, who asked not to be identified, the operational issues mentioned have been present in the office since Murray first took his position and never really subsided. “It felt a little bit like everybody bought in at the beginning to a particular plan or vision of what city government can do,” said the former employee. “And you’d get your feet dug in to do that work and then it would change as to how that was going to happen. It just felt like a moving target as far as productivity. I just don’t feel like it got to a place where the office was singing.”

According to this person, that moving target made it hard to live up to the mayor’s high expectations. “This mayor comes in and he’s the most ambitious, big thinking mayor with the highest expectations I’ve seen,” the former employee said. “It can lead sometimes to reactionary management decisions. I think probably most people [in the office] feel that way…. So how do you create a really established robust office environment with those expectations?”

A different former employee, who also asked not to be identified, agreed, but went further. “When I was there, [Murray] didn’t bother to get to know his staff or say good morning,” said this person. “In turn, the staff wasn’t bonding, just taking their cues from the top.”

“There are too many great places to work in this city to put up with such treatment.”

It’s important to note that these are just two anecdotes of 21 former employees. Efforts to reach other former employees that, at least from the outside, appear to have maintained positive relationships with the Mayor’s Office were unsuccessful.

Still, to hear that it can be difficult to work for Murray is not necessarily a surprise; his temper is well known by now. E-mails between members of his $15 minimum wage task force joked about whose turn it was to be yelled at by Murray. Anna Minard, formerly of the Stranger, documented a heated phone call with the mayor, an experience familiar to many Seattle and Olympia journalists who have covered his political career.

But any elected official is bound to have conflict, a sentiment echoed by former State Representative and Murray colleague Lynn Kessler. “I do know he does have a temper,” she said, “but so does everyone I’ve worked with.”

Murray, she said, never had any problems with staff turnover in Olympia, but pointed out that state legislators don’t hire or manage many staff — just the one or two in his or her office. Most of the employees in Olympia are central staff who serve the whole caucus. “I’m suspecting that because you have to put together an entire staff [in the Mayor’s Office], that he’s doing a bit of on-the-job training.”

Indeed, in a November 2013 e-mail from Murray to his transition team, the mayor refers to “the confusing information regarding the structure of the positions available to us,” and directs his team, for a time, to pull back from “the morass of personnel decisions we find ourselves caught up in.”

In the other corners of City Hall, the churn of Murray’s office hasn’t raised many eyebrows. “City Hall always churns,” said Lisa Herbold, longtime aide to Seattle Councilmember Nick Licata. “Whether it’s legislative assistants, central staff, or Mayor’s Office staff, it’s just the nature of employment I think.”

Fellow Licata aide Frank Video echoed Herbold, saying he hadn’t noticed the turnover on the seventh floor more or less than other mayors. “At that level you get a lot of exposure to other opportunities,” he said.

But as one of the longest-standing employees in City Hall, Herbold did say that the fluctuation can be difficult. “Turnover affects productivity across all employment sectors,” she said. “Specifically, in the expectations we can have of what we can get done and in how much time.”

It’s certainly too early to say what, if anything, turnover means for Murray’s ability to govern. Perhaps the churn will calm as the core of Murray’s cabinet is solidified. And the fact that the previous mayor with the highest turnover rate, Schell, and the mayor with the lowest, McGinn, were both voted out after one term throws out any predictive pattern for turnover and elections.

In the meantime, we’re left with the question posed by the New York Times’ recent article about the brutal work environment at Amazon: Do such high expectations push people to do their best work or discourage them from settling in for the long term?

When asked if working for Murray was like doing time at Amazon, one former employee said cheerfully, “It’s not nearly that bad. I never saw anyone crying at their desk.”

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