Happening now: SDOT changes announced

(Photo added 11:57 am – SDOT director Grace Crunican and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis)
We’re in the briefing room on the 7th floor of City Hall, summoned along with the rest of the media for a “transportation personnel announcement” to be made any moment by Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis and Transportation Director Grace Crunican (both West Seattleites, incidentally). Stand by.

11:07 AM: The mayor himself popped in. He says changes are being made to fix an “unhealthy and divisive atmosphere” in SDOT’s street maintenance division. He mentioned last year’s snow woes, but this apparently goes beyond that. A new street maintenance director has been named, the mayor announced. Ceis and Crunican now are briefing us on details. Looking at some of the documentation that’s been distributed, it’s not just snow-related – the first documents say the city has investigated “15 charges of employment discrimination by SDOT employees over the past year.” Crunican says “there was a disproportionate amount of discipline affecting minorities,” uncovered by a report ordered from a law firm (long before the snowstorm, by the way – the investigation’s “letter of engagement” is dated June 2007). The employment discrimination claims appear to date back as far as 2005. Crunican says former street maintenance director Paul Jackson asked to be transferred, feeling he had “become a distraction” during the investigation, and Charlie Bookman is now its interim director. They also are bringing in a consultant to look at the organization “and see what other changes can be done,” she says.

Click ahead for continuing coverage from the briefing:

11:15 AM: Now Ceis is speaking: This has come about as a result of the after-action report on the snowstorm, he says – they then started looking more closely at these other issues. He says a sexual-harassment complaint filed against Jackson was investigated but found to be baseless. “One of the major issues we’re dealing with is a culture at the division that is not healthy … It’s not acceptable, and we are taking that one,” Ceis said, while saying the issues will “take time” to resolve. He says Crunican and the mayor represent “strong leadership” to work on this – he also has been given a specific accountability role in helping manage the situation. (Looking further into the documentation, some of the discipline alluded to does involve incidents during the snowstorm. More details as we read it more closely later.) The study cost about half a million dollars, Crunican said in reply to a reporter’s question. “No one is losing their jobs (because of this investigation),” Ceis said, replying to another question. “We are instituting reforms … to be sure (these) behaviors are dealt with, when performance and behavior doesn’t meet expectations. We’ll be working with the employees on this.” 114 people were interviewed in the course of the report, Crunican says, and 15 were found to have specific complaints, but not all the findings were substantiated, she explained, in response to the question, “Why ISN’T anyone losing their job?” Regarding discrimination complaints, Crunican said, “it came from all sides, all genders” and all races. The issues, she said, were mostly in the past, but shone light on “changes that needed to be made.” She says that the people responsible for the inappropriate culture are “no longer with the department” – some left voluntarily. Ceis explains, “Everybody … is being appropriately dealt with,” while adding, “nobody was terminated.”

11:23 AM: Shouldn’t you be held accountable, Crunican was asked. Yes, she said, and she has been held accountable, and changes are being made. “Grace’s performance is not in question,” Ceis said. “She has taken the appropriate steps at the appropriate time.”

How this all ties into the snowstorm is still being clarified – apparently the stress the street maintenance division was under, exacerbated the situation and the culture. He was originally promoted from within to respond to problems uncovered by the first report regarding how the division worked internally. “I knew what I was putting in there when I was putting it in … we had some issues that needed to be addressed,” Crunican says, for why Jackson, whom she describes as a “strong manager” she put into a higher role “to clean things up.” 7 people were disciplined for what happened during the snow response, including one who was literally “asleep on the job.” His management style was described as “too direct” and “abrasive,” Ceis explains, while also saying he wasn’t part of the problem – his approach to solving problems may have been the problem. How was he a distraction? Ceis says, “The media helped make him a distraction” because of the snow report, elaborating on why he asked to leave the division. Was the snow response his fault, Crunican is asked. No, “we had a lot of snow,” Crunican replied, reiterating what she’s said before – “Seattle never closed.” She won’t say where she lays the blame for what went wrong, saying that she thinks her department “did its best to clear the snow and keep the city open.” And she says she would not have reassigned Jackson if he had not requested it. He requested the transfer this past Tuesday and is now in the traffic-management section, where he was before moving to street maintenance in July of last year, Crunican says. His exact role in traffic-management operations has not yet been determined.

What’s the relationship to the snowstorm? Ceis is asked. “It’s indirect,” he replied, while saying the report on the street maintenance division culture “came to light” perhaps because of some inquiries during examination of the snow response. This briefing was called, he reiterated, because some media agencies were requesting documentation related to all this, and they decided to give everybody access at the same time. (The packet of documents we’ve received includes six complaints about employees’ response during the snowstorm, by the way.) No disciplinary actions have resulted from the MFR (law firm) investigation, but policy and procedure changes have been made, they said. Ceis is also being asked about procedures for public disclosure of documents. Meantime, Crunican answered the question “how is this going to get the snow plowed better next time?” with “I’m not so sure that it is,” and Ceis reiterated that this is a separate issue, and that Crunican is working on the “after-action report” related to snow, and that a separate consultant will be brought in for emergency-management issues (that makes two consultants to be brought in as a result of the post-snow reviews). Did this unhealthy culture contribute to the snow woes? is another question. Well, we switched to a 12 on 12 off schedule, Crunican replied, but this event went on for 15 days, and “I think people got tired, and stressed, and any old issues they had probably irritated them as they went through the process.” Are people safe as a result? Yes, we drill constantly, says Ceis. Just last week, in fact, adding that they do “tabletop” exercises every September before snow season, and noting that the “incident management system” in SDOT was opened during the swine-flu situation last week.

We just asked a clarifying question – the disciplinary actions included in the documentation were not included as cases of previous division management having gone too far, but simply to let people know that some people had been disciplined because of failure to respond during the snow situation. Looking quickly at them, for example, there was one person reprimanded for not showing up on December 21st; he told his supervisors that his car was stuck in the driveway of his home and he couldn’t dig it out – he was subsequently told that wasn’t acceptable.

The briefing’s over and as the media crowd breaks up (every TV station was here, among others), we’ve been provided with a news release that gives an overview of how the city communications team sees what was just announced – the first two paragraphs:

Mayor Greg Nickels announced today changes in the street maintenance division at the Seattle Department of Transportation to address problems with discipline, morale and performance.

After a series of storms in December 2008, the mayor released an After Action Report, laying out steps to improve tactics for snow response. Today, the mayor said the next step is to focus on broader personnel and management issues.

8 Replies to "Happening now: SDOT changes announced"

  • miws May 7, 2009 (11:37 am)

    I don’t know if this is common practice in such situations, but, I’d certainly like to see the cost of this investigation divided amongst all of the “guilty” parties. Whether they resigned, or stayed on the job.



  • Mr. JT May 7, 2009 (11:47 am)

    What a JOKE. Crunican always comes out unscathed. WHO does hes have photos of ?

  • onceachef May 7, 2009 (12:01 pm)

    I’d like to see WS’s California SW get repaved soon…the condition it’s in now is like a war zone!

  • KT May 7, 2009 (2:29 pm)

    Can the lawsuits be far behind?

  • Save Our Streets Seattle May 7, 2009 (5:30 pm)

    Teflon Grace strikes again! Well, at least SDOT’s apparent institutionalized racism will take the attention away from how poorly run the department is at the top. Teflon Grace will rat out a few bad mid-level apples while she slinks away to Portland or some other better city for the weekend while Cies gives ’em the boot. Grrrr. SDOT. Grrrr.

  • Elisabeth May 7, 2009 (8:39 pm)

    So now Jackson is in traffic management? Good Lord! Snow is seasonal but traffic is year around!

  • Dis May 7, 2009 (10:47 pm)

    Doesn’t the buck stop at the top? Why isn’t the director taking any flack on this one? Sounds like VERY poor management on her part. Either she didn’t know what was going on (not good), or she turned a blind eye (worse), or she lacked the skills to handle it before it got to this (even worse). I don’t get it.

  • Beaten down in SDOT May 14, 2009 (3:17 pm)

    Get this all of the SDOT division are doing the same harassment-retailiatory- Hilter like management styles. Captial Projects is a worse offender than Street Maintenance. Grace is pushing them to do this. They are more than happy to do it as they are so incompentent and willing to step on the little guy to get favortism. Jackson is just a scapegoat and isn’t the minority who is put in charge always the scapegoat?

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