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Two former Durkan staffers alleged mistreatment in Seattle mayor’s office

One employee reported that the mayor grabbed her by the face. Another is saying that she oversees a toxic work environment. Durkan denies both accounts.

Mayor Jenny Durkan sits at a table in her seventh floor office in Seattle City Hall, Nov. 8, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Last summer, an employee of Mayor Jenny Durkan told colleagues that Durkan had grabbed her by the face and turned her head during a gathering in the mayor's office, according to documents provided to Crosscut through a public records request.

Durkan and her chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, who was in the room at the time, both deny the mayor put her hands on the staff member, although both say there was an exchange that the employee found triggering.

The incident was apparently upsetting to the employee — whom Crosscut is not naming because records regarding her allegation refer to past instances of domestic violence — and led to several weeks of high-level talks involving the employee, Durkan's executive team, representatives of the city's human resources department and Durkan's in-house legal counsel at the time.

As a result of the talks, the mayor's office agreed that the employee, who had begun working for the mayor last spring, would no longer be required to physically report to the mayor's seventh-floor office and could remain on the payroll for six more months while looking for a new job. During that time, the employee worked remotely on "special assignment duties" and reported to Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, according to the agreement.  

The employee resigned in February as planned, according to an internal email, and never filed a formal complaint.  

Additionally, the mayor's office is currently facing an allegation from a second employee, who sent the mayor a demand letter and threat of litigation last month, alleging mistreatment and describing a toxic work environment within the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office is pushing back on the claims by the employee, who was briefly an executive assistant to deputy mayors Ranganathan and Mike Fong.

Through an attorney, the employee, Shirley Collins, says an alternative work arrangement, agreed to by the mayor's office staff shortly after she accepted her job last summer, was not made in good faith and led to her losing employment with the city. The letter says Collins could be owed as much as $1.6 million in lost wages, retirement benefits and emotional damages.

Although Collins is not formally accusing the city of discrimination, the letter also mentions the exchange involving the other employee, pointing out that both women are of Asian descent.

The city is strongly denying Collins' claims, which include allegations of hostility. In a response to the demand letter, sent to Collins’ attorney earlier this month, an attorney with the City Attorney's Office said that Collins was not well suited to the job. The city’s attorney wished Collins well in the letter and wrote that "she was genuinely liked," but said that her dismissal was not the result of any hostility toward Collins.

The city also dismissed implications that Collins' race was a factor, pointing to the high-level positions of Fong, who is of Chinese descent, and Ranganathan, who was born in India. 

Collins' attorney, Susan Mindenbergs, has brought several high-profile cases against the city of Seattle, including on behalf of William Wingate, the Black man arrested by a Seattle police officer in 2014 for carrying a golf club while walking on the street. That case resulted in a $325,000 payout to Wingate in 2016. In 2017, Mindenbergs also reached a $375,000 settlement with the city on behalf of three former Seattle City Light employees who had alleged discrimination.

The following accounts of the two claims and the steps the city has taken in their aftermath are based on interviews with city officials, attorneys and documents released under a public records act request by Crosscut. In response to the request, the mayor's office agreed to waive attorney-client privilege to disclose notes and written accounts from Durkan, her staff, human resources representatives and legal counsel. The former employee who alleged being grabbed by Durkan did not respond to requests for an interview.

The Thursday, July 12, 2018 exchange came at a hectic time in City Hall. Deep into the selection process for the city’s next police chief, Durkan had recently resurrected interim Chief Carmen Best as a finalist after Best’s exclusion from the finalists list had ignited a community outcry and grumbling from Seattle Police Department rank-and-file. The mayor was nearing a final decision, when staff gathered in the back part of the mayor's office to eat cupcakes and celebrate the birthday of Deputy Communications Director Kamaria Hightower. The atmosphere was "lively," according to one account. 

As people were exiting the gathering, Durkan and several staff began talking about Donnie Chin — the beloved Chinatown-International District community leader whose 2015 murder case remains unsolved. The three-year anniversary of his death was two weeks away and the conversation turned toward how the mayor's office would mark the occasion.

As Durkan floated the idea of possibly creating some sort of flyer, the employee who would later say Durkan grabbed her suggested that they convene an event the mayor could attend, as Durkan would be out of town for a planned vigil set to take place in the International District.

Durkan, however, wanted to continue discussing the flyer. A back and forth between the mayor and the employee ensued, with the two talking over each other. According to an account from Chief of Staff Formas, written several days later, the mayor then said, "You're not listening to me" and stepped toward the employee, her hands "motioning on either side of [the employee's] face."

At this point, according to contemporaneous accounts from the employee, Durkan grabbed her face and forcibly turned her head. 

Formas, who was near both the mayor and the employee during the incident, reported that there was no contact. "I thought it was a few inches away — maybe she could have been closer as she was moving her hands. The entire interaction lasted maybe one or two seconds," she wrote.

Both the employee and Formas recalled Durkan quickly apologizing during the exchange, although Formas said in her written statement, "I didn't think it was necessary because [the employee] had interrupted us."

There were still as many as 12 other staff in the room at the time. In addition to Formas, a second employee, Durkan’s executive assistant, Colleen Bernier, provided a firsthand account. She recalled overhearing the conversation, but wrote, “I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation other than it was about Donny [sic] Chin.” She did not recall any physical contact.

In a July 24 letter to Ian Warner, the mayor's office legal counsel at the time, Durkan said the employee's account was "not accurate." 

But the employee was adamant that the mayor had grabbed her and that the event was triggering. Within minutes of the exchange, she went to the shared office of two executive assistants in the mayor's office and asked one of the two, Kindle Shaw, to close the door. According to an account from Shaw, written at the request of legal counsel Warner, the employee "looked red in the face and her eyes were welling with tears." The employee "had trouble catching her breath," but eventually told Shaw that the mayor had grabbed her face to turn her head. "She kept crying and said how humiliated and embarrassed she was, that the entire team saw the interaction," wrote Shaw.

Additionally, in an account written by Director of External Relations Kyla Blair several days later, Kamaria Hightower told Blair that “there was an interaction where the Mayor did gently touch [the employee’s] face and said ‘sshh’ but that it wasn’t a big ordeal in her eyes.”

The employee met several days later with Deputy Mayor Ranganathan. She repeated her story and was "visibly upset," according to an account written by Ranganathan. The employee told Ranganathan, as she had previously told Shaw, that she was a survivor of past abuse — a fact the mayor's staff said it was not aware of before the exchange — and that the event was triggering for her. "She then told me that she would be unable to work in the Mayor's Office because the Mayor's presence made her uncomfortable and that the Mayor's voice was a trigger," wrote Ranganathan. 

The employee requested either an office with a door or a transfer to a separate position in the mayor’s cabinet, such as leading the Office of Economic Development. Ranganathan was surprised by the request because "her new position requests would still require her to communicate with the Mayor on a regular basis."

During their July 16 meeting, Ranganathan invited Fong and office administrator Lyle Canceko into the office to speak with the employee, at which point she told the same story. The account was relayed to legal counsel Warner and the city's Human Resources Department that evening.

The employee went on to have several more meetings in the following days with representatives from the Human Resources Department, Warner and an attorney with the City Attorney’s Office. Staff asked her to present options for her work environment, at which point she suggested either a transfer to a higher position or six months’ leave.

Durkan, meanwhile, largely removed herself from the conversations. In a letter to Warner, written 12 days after the birthday party, she urged staff to treat the employee with respect and praised the work the employee had done since she’d begun the preceding spring. In her letter, Durkan said she didn't believe the employee’s account was accurate, "but it is clear she has come to believe her perceptions of the interaction.”

Durkan deferred the final decision of how to proceed with the employee to human resources and Warner, but expressed a preference to provide her with six months’ leave and a severance.

In the final agreement between the Human Resources Department and the employee, both parties agreed to describe her resignation as a "mutual decision following productive and constructive discussions." The employee was not placed on paid leave, technically, but would “remain in active, paid status working on special assignment duties for the City” from July 30, 2018, through Feb. 1, 2019, according to the agreement. Her duties included working on new strategies around community engagement, Formas said. The expectation was the employee would “use this time to pursue alternative employment.” As part of the agreement, she agreed to not pursue litigation.

The employee resigned as planned and has since left Seattle, according to colleagues.

In an interview with Crosscut this week, Durkan repeated that her recollection of what occurred was different from the employee’s. “But after the events, I learned that our brief interaction caused her to relive previous trauma and, for that, I'm really sorry,” she said. She added, “There's differing perceptions of what happened, but it's an important reminder about how impactful every interaction we can have in a workplace or outside of a workplace can be. And it's important for us all to be very mindful of that.”

The second allegation is still ongoing and has been met with a forceful denial from the mayor's office.

The employee, Shirley Collins, was recruited to join the mayor's office last August as an executive assistant to deputy mayors Fong and Ranganathan after she had worked for King County for nearly 20 years.

Almost immediately, she found herself facing unexpected challenges in her new job. In her letter, Collins says she was set up to fail and that the atmosphere was toxic. The city responded that that wasn't the case and that they made a good faith effort to accommodate her, despite performance issues.

A timeline provided by the mayor's office shows that the deputy mayors met with Collins 2 ½ months into her new job to discuss her performance and develop a plan to improve.

Several days later, Collins brought a doctor's note supporting a transfer to a different working environment that would be better for her health.

The mayor's office agreed and sent Collins a memo releasing the mayor's office from any future claims in exchange for a new position in the city's Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS). Collins approved the transfer.

Collins began an assistant position in FAS on Jan. 2. But on Feb. 6, she was let go. Her supervisor cited performance issues. Collins, however, said she was still learning the new position. She provided Crosscut with performance reviews from her previous job with the county, showing she received consistently high marks while working in the King County Executive's Office. In late 2017, she was promoted to executive secretary in the county position.

“Unfortunately, their expectations seemed to be very unreasonable, by not allowing me to progress, learn, and ask questions. Instead they chastised me when I sought help and asked clarifying questions,” Collins told Crosscut in reference to her new city job.

Following the separation from the city, she retained attorney Mindenbergs. In her March letter, Mindenbergs said Collins had been subjected to a hostile work environment. The agreement between the mayor's office and Collins was breached, Mindenbergs said. "Clearly there was no good faith intention by the city for Ms. Collins to be a successful employee in the FAS department," she wrote.

She also drew a connection to the allegations by the other employee. "It is not lost on Ms. Collins that another female employee who is of Asian descent has been out on administrative leave after experiencing traumatic events as an employee in the mayor's office," she wrote. The employee was not technically on leave.

Mindenbergs asked to be contacted within five days if the city was interested in avoiding litigation.

In the city’s response to her letter, sent earlier this month and provided to Crosscut by Mindenbergs, the city denied all allegations. "At no time was Ms. Collins subjected to a hostile work environment or discrimination of any kind during the roughly six months she worked at the City," wrote attorney Zahraa Wilkinson.

Attorneys pointed to the high-ranking Asian officials working in the mayor’s office to counter allegations of disparate treatment. Additionally, the city said the agreement with Collins "did not guarantee a specific amount of time in the position."  The letter ended, "the City went out of its way to help Ms. Collins and give her a chance to succeed."

In an interview, Durkan said of Collins, “I think it's a situation where management really tried to work with the employee to find a route for her where she could be successful.”

The case is now being handled by the City Attorney’s Office.

In a one-on-one interview in her office, Durkan said she believed her office responded to both issues fairly and respectfully. She declined to speak at length about either individual or their versions of events, except to say they differed from hers.

The personnel issues faced by the mayor's office over the past eight months come as Durkan has sought to reshape how harassment allegations are handled in the city.

Early in her tenure, the mayor instructed city departments to route all harassment allegations through the city's central human resources department to provide greater transparency. She also assembled an interdepartmental team to craft recommendations for improving how harassment allegations are addressed. The recommendations were released last summer and have led to the establishment of a city ombud’s office, where employees can bring complaints and receive advice without going through human resources.

Durkan said it was an effort to change culture within the city. “It is incredibly important to me that we make sure that we are continuing those efforts and making sure that the things I heard about both from when I was in practice, but also since I've been mayor, is where employees felt that we needed to improve,” she said.

When asked if her office fostered a safe culture, she said, “Yes," pointing to the slow pace of turnover in her office as compared with past administrations and the relatively diverse staff — nearly half people of color and more than three quarters women.

In a statement sent later, Durkan said, "While our staff works hard on some of the greatest challenges of our City and works many long hours, we are able to support one another. Whether its potlucks or summer grilling on the office deck or cookie bakeoffs, our team has built a culture to allow employees to do their best work and also have fun. We also see each other through life events like the birth of children, family illnesses, and other momentous occasions like weddings. We revel in each other’s successes and share in the challenges."

Durkan recently nominated Amarah Khan to be the new ombud. In Khan's interview, Durkan told her about the two personnel issues. Durkan said Dr. Khan did not offer any opinion about the nature of the complaints, but said she would focus on building trauma-informed solutions in her new role as the city’s ombud.  

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Two former Durkan staffers alleged mistreatment in Seattle mayor’s office

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