Culture complaints spark WA Utilities commission investigation

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has commissioned an independent review amid dueling claims by former agency leaders over the workplace climate.

A picture of the Capitol dome in Olympia.

The Washington State Capitol in Olympia on Friday, April 21, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has commissioned an independent investigation into workplace issues at the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission amid allegations of high employee turnover, low morale, sexism and divisions over gender and racial equity.

The investigation follows a series of bitter internal disputes after the commission appointed longtime employee Amanda Maxwell as executive director in 2021, according to public records obtained by Crosscut.

The issues came to light in recent months after a former agency executive director wrote Inslee’s office alleging a host of workplace concerns that he contends have increased staff turnover and “damaged the agency’s ability to meet its mission to regulate privately-owned utilities.” At least one anonymous complaint was also made, alleging that Maxwell, who left the agency earlier this year along with several other high-ranking executives, and a handful of other staffers “created an unbearably hostile environment.”

In a statement, an attorney representing Maxwell and five other former employees described the complaints against them as a “smear campaign” and that among other things, the UTC “failed to address the ongoing harassment of women leaders …”

“A coordinated group of current and former Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission … employees have been waging a nearly two-year, targeted smear campaign against several women in leadership positions,” according to attorney Stephanie Henderson Stocker. 

That led Maxwell and others to also ask the governor’s office to review the situation. Stocker described that anonymous complaint and some others as “patently false.”

In her statement, Stocker went further, alleging that among other things the agency failed to investigate a host of issues, including “documented examples” of high-ranking leaders or staffers “actively undermining” both Inslee’s mandate related to COVID-19 vaccination requirements and work being done on the governor’s equity and anti-racism mandate.

Stocker intends to bring tort claims on behalf of each of the six individuals, she said in a phone interview, with lawsuits that could follow.

With about 150 employees, the UTC is a small state agency that handles consequential and highly technical issues. The staff and three-member commission regulate private energy utilities – such as Avista and Puget Sound Energy – and telecommunications services. UTC workers inspect natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines and railroads for safety and other issues. When the Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle crashed in 2015 in Seattle, killing five people and injuring others, the UTC had the authority to impose a temporary ban on the vehicles, as well as tighten safety restrictions for them.

The governor’s office contracted with the law firm of Sebris Bustos James for the investigation, according to Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk. The contract authorized up to $30,000 for the review, which is still underway and could be finished in December, he added.

“Our office received reports from a number of concerned sources and the decision to investigate isn’t tied to any one specific individual’s claims,” Faulk wrote in a text message.


Complaint to the governor

In July, the governor’s office received a letter from Steve King, a longtime UTC employee who served as executive director for his last five years there before he retired in 2018.

The letter, obtained by Crosscut through a request for public records, contended that after Maxwell’s appointment in 2021, “UTC turnover has increased alarmingly, and morale among the remaining employees has declined sharply. Both are the direct result of the actions of UTC’s senior managers – particularly Ms. Maxwell.”

Elsewhere in the letter, King alleged that the circumstances “have damaged the agency’s ability to meet its mission to regulate privately-owned utilities and to implement the 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act,” 

King also contended that “management practices and Maxwell’s missteps with the DEI initiative have had a strongly negative impact on the working environment …”

“Her tenure has caused a knowledgeable, collegial, respectful work environment to transform into an inexperienced and anxious one where employees spend time gossiping about what the management clique has done or will do and worrying whether they might be the next person targeted.”

“More importantly this has left the commission without needed technical staff knowledge needed to fulfill its mission, particularly with respect to economic regulation,” he added. He asked Inslee’s office to investigate.

In an email to Crosscut, King wrote that “the Commissioners have taken steps that I believe will address my concerns.” He declined to comment further. Crosscut received no response to an email to David Danner, chair of the three-member commission.

The UTC declined to comment on King’s letter, according to agency spokesperson Amanda McCarthy. Asked what the commissioners were doing to address any issues, McCarthy wrote in an email, “The last few years have been challenging for all state agencies, including the UTC.”

“We experienced significant staffing changes related to COVID, vaccine mandates, increasingly heavy workloads and the great resignation,” she wrote.

“Through these changes, our dedicated staff have continued to conduct excellent work,” McCarthy added. “We continue to focus on recruitment and retention of staff and those plans will continue in 2024.”

Stocker, the attorney for Maxwell and others, wrote in her statement that King was working on behalf of anonymous staffers.

“Steve King retired from the UTC in 2018 and has no firsthand knowledge of agency operations but maintains close ties with UTC employees who have complained repeatedly that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are moving too fast, and who have specifically targeted women leaders by referring to them as ‘mean girls’ who are part of a ‘clique,’” Stocker wrote in her statement. “This same misogynist language has been used repeatedly in anonymous complaints and exit interviews.”


Employee engagement

Meanwhile, in her statement on behalf of Maxwell and others, Stocker made a series of allegations against the UTC.

Stocker wrote that the commissioners among other things failed to address issues that had been brought to them by Maxwell and one other employee.

Those include “Documented examples of leadership team members actively undermining the governor’s mandate related to COVID-19 vaccination requirements” and “of agency leaders actively undermining equity work and the governor’s mandate related to pro-equity and anti-racism.”

Stocker also contended that there was a “coordinated and documented effort to sabotage employee engagement survey results” and “unlawful surveillance of UTC employees by a member of the leadership team,” among other things.

In a statement through McCarthy, Danner, the UTC chair, said those and other claims raised by Stocker "are allegations at this point."

"We take them very seriously," Danner said in prepared remarks. "We have an active investigation happening and will support the investigation however we can. We want the investigation to be thorough and independent, which is why we are working with a third-party. We are committed to a work environment that is safe and positive for all."

At one point, the state Office of Financial Management – which handles some state worker human resources issues – sent a staffer to interview a human resources officer at UTC, according to OFM spokesperson Hayden Mackley. That visit was a follow-up after OFM received an anonymous complaint – which named Maxwell and three other then-senior staffers – according to Mackley.

That complaint, obtained through a public records request, alleges that men in the agency are “treated with contempt and hostility.”

Meanwhile, job candidates would get lectured by some agency leaders during interview panels if their answers on diversity, equity and inclusion issues didn’t measure up, according to the same complaint.

“BIPOC panelists who express concern with the above mentioned behavior are shut down and excluded from participation on further panels as well as targeted by leaders as ‘trouble’ employees,” it continued.

This spring, UTC managers and employees participated in a cultural assessment that included surveys and focus groups.

The resulting report concluded among other things that, “Team members feel psychologically safe within their teams, sections, and divisions, but feel unsafe to share their honest thoughts and feedback at the agency level."

"Most team members distrust, or feel unsupported by, the Leadership Team and commissioners,” added the report, which was given to Crosscut by OFM.

In an email, Mackley wrote that, “Those kinds of reviews aren’t routine, but in this case there were a number of issues that filtered up to the Governor’s Office that contributed to them recommending a culture assessment.”

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