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Former Port director defends his record
On its face, the story behind the recent uproar at the Port of Port Angeles is simple — and for many, infuriating.
During the Port commission’s June 24 meeting, Jeff Robb, the Port’s then-executive director, announced his resignation, effective immediately. He cited health concerns; Commissioner John Calhoun added that a revolt among the office staff also played a part.
Robb was then rehired at a lesser position, but with the same pay and benefits. The new contract, approved by Calhoun and fellow commissioner Paul McHugh, will keep Robb on the payroll until he reaches 30 years of public service, providing a nice boost in his future retirement pay.
Commissioner Jim Hallett strongly objected to the decision. So did a great many voters within the county.
Is there another side to the story?
Robb says yes.
He points out that the recent uproar largely resulted from a “whistleblower” complaint filed by Colleen McAleer, the Port’s director of business development and now a candidate for the Port commission seat held by McHugh.
In her complaint McAleer charged that Robb had consistently failed to follow the law and the Port’s own policies.
She wrote, “I cannot continue to be involved in the lack of required reporting and be complicit in the failure to follow the RCW’s (state statutes), the Port of Port Angeles’ Master Policy and ensure the contractual language of the leases are being followed.”
As required by law, the complaint led to an investigation, which resulted in a series of reports issued by Port Angeles attorney Donna Knifsend.
What no one seems to notice, Robb said, is that the investigator’s report, issued June 10, concluded that no laws had been broken and that the Port’s policies had been followed.
(Knifsend added another conclusion, saying the whistleblower complaint was filed by McAleer in “good faith.”)
Following that initial report, Knifsend issued three more updates, each one delving into staff complaints regarding Robb’s conduct as executive director.
Robb has since said that he felt he was being undermined by the direct interaction of Hallett with staff members, saying those actions had emboldened them to be ever more insubordinate.
The result, he said, was a hostile work environment.
In her June 17 report, Knifsend wrote, “If there is any ‘hostile work environment’ (his words) affecting the Executive Director, it appears to be the result of his own acts, conduct and interaction (or lack thereof) with staff testifying that they are intimidated and hesitant to approach him relating to work matters.”
Those she interviewed, she said, had lost all trust and confidence in Robb’s leadership.
Knifsend documented that staff had circumvented the executive director to bring information directly to the commissioners.
She also documented that the steps taken by the staff had been “disconcerting” to two of the commissioners.
But she also declared McAleer had not led a group effort to have Robb fired.
“The bottom line is that the Executive Director has created a stifling environment that has interfered with staff to complete their duties in the best interests of the Port and fiduciary obligations owed to the public.”
Knifsend also addressed accusations by Robb that Hallett had undermined his authority, and emboldened his mutinous staff, by working with them directly, including attending at least one staff meeting when Robb was not in attendance.
“In reality,” she wrote, “the facts demonstrate that Commissioner Hallett was not interfering with or orchestrating empowerment for senior staff to take action against the Executive Director.”
The deeper Hallett dug, she said, the more evidence she found that “Robb manipulated documents and his ‘alliance’ with the other two Commissioners ….”
She said her investigation revealed that “the Executive Director may honestly believe that his conduct and performance was acceptable and in the best interest of the Port.”
And then she got really personal, going so far as to suggest that Robb might become violent as a result of her investigation.
Robb said he was stunned by her comment. “She asked me, ‘Are you at risk of violence?’ I said, ‘Not at all. I’ve got way too much to live for.’”
“It was jovial, not even remotely serious.”
In fact, Robb said, Knifsend told him she had a Mustang pistol in her car.
“A good investigator would say that nothing happened.”
Knifsend hasn’t responded to questions posed by the Gazette, saying that might “damage the integrity of the fact-finding process.”
She declined to say if she had any previous personal or business relationships with any member of the Port staff or commission.
Robb objected to a number of items in the report, not least that it dealt quickly with the issues raised in the initial complaint and then ranged far beyond the scope of that complaint. In the end, he said, the investigator was acting in the capacity of a psychologist, including an extensive psychoanalysis of his state of mind.
He also objected to the means by which he was pressed into an interview, saying that Knifsend first interviewed him for three hours in his office, then later insisted that she interview Robb immediately, which resulted in an interview at his home that lasted until 11 p.m. Robb said he was at home because he was following his doctor’s advice to take time off and rest. He suggested the circumstances may be why she described him as “foggy.”
But he also was confused by Knifsend’s harsh conclusions, saying before she left for the evening she asked for a hug and he complied.
Robb’s greatest concern lies with Knifsend’s failure to delve into the comments he included in a June 3 memo to the commissioners, which he cc’d to Knifsend and commission attorney Dave Neupert.
In that memo to the commissioners, Robb detailed a number of occasions when he says his authority was undercut by Hallett, who he said failed to follow the Port’s Master Policy.
He wrote, “I have to admit that the biggest challenge to fulfilling my responsibilities and achieving Port Commission’s goals is that Commissioner Hallett has interfered with my work and undermined my ability to manage my staff.”
He provided a litany of events he said illustrated his accusation of “interference and sabotage by Commissioner Hallett.” In one entry, he wrote, “late in 2012 Commissioner Hallett instructed me to leave Colleen and the staff alone and let them do their job.”
Robb said he asked Hallett to refrain from providing this kind of direction. “Nonetheless, he restated his instructions to me that I was to let staff manage themselves.”
At a meeting in March 2013 in Washington, D.C., Robb said he again raised his concerns about Hallett’s interference with his staff. “He stated that he didn’t agree with me and that he would continue to direct my staff members.”
He said Hallett also said he had reviewed the Port’s organizational structure “with my staff members a few months back, notwithstanding that I was not in attendance or even aware of his meeting.”
Robb repeatedly said he was particularly concerned about Hallett’s special relationship with McAleer.
By May 7, Robb said, he had had enough and prepared a performance review to describe his concerns to McAleer.
On May 8 the two met for a wide-ranging conversation. Included were discussions of occasions when Robb said McAleer had overstepped her authority, including a public announcement on March 3, that the Port was going to purchase the Walmart building and develop an advanced composite center.
“The Port commission had not been briefed nor had they taken action to enter into a purchase and sale agreement,” he said.
McAleer said it’s not that simple. She said she was meeting with the Ready Response Leadership Coalition, a group that includes CEOs and city managers. Sequim Mayor Ken Hays was among those present, she said.
“It was a group that was supporting an advanced composite center,” she said. “I was also asking the county for support with zoning issues. Here I am talking with city leaders. I couldn’t ask for their support, and then say, ‘We can’t tell you where it would be located.’”
“He had never told me I can’t share that.”
In the end, she said, no offer was made on the building: “We did due diligence and passed on it.”
Conducting the due diligence, said Robb, created another issue. He wrote that McAleer had “moved forward with developing a purchase and sale agreement using two local real estate companies without discussing (her) actions with me.”
The two included Coldwell Banker and Re/Max Fifth Avenue, where McAleer was formerly employed and where her father and brother continue to work. “What would be the public perception and/or is there a conflict of interest when you made the unilateral decision to select a real estate agent from Team McAleer?” Robb asked.
Speaking to commissioners
Robb said he also discussed with McAleer his concerns regarding her conversations with commissioners.
“Colleen stated that ‘Jim’ (Commissioner Hallett) wanted to be made aware of what is going on inside the Port.”
McAleer said, “I may have said that, but in my view it’s the responsibility of the commissioners to understand operations. They have delegated authority, but they don’t delegate their responsibility.”
If she’s elected, “I definitely would talk to staff. I would want to understand how they work.”
She said it’s part of creating an organization “where there’s trust.”
She added that there are limits, and spelled them out, saying that a staff member always should inform the director when there’s been a conversation and that a commissioner “should never direct a staff member to do anything.”
In fact, she said, she had exchanged e-mails with McHugh and McHugh had complimented former Port Manager Doug Sandau for explaining the operations of the Port’s airport and marina.
Robb said the record shows he’s never said staff must not talk to commissioners. “Information is important,” he said.
The challenge arises, he said, “when it becomes advocacy” — when a staffer promotes a particular idea or proposal.
McAleer said she was told by Robb that the memo he wrote regarding her performance was never going to be released, that in fact he was going to shred it. And, she added, it was updated after the meeting but before it was filed as an exhibit for the investigator.
Robb agreed, saying he had shredded the original. But, he said, “When it all blew up I went back into the computer files. I considered the (whistleblower complaint) retaliation for trying to manage her.”
The only change, he said, was the addition of a sentence that said he had discussed the memo with McAleer.
Who said what
At some point after the meeting with Robb, McAleer called Calhoun for a 45-minute discussion. Calhoun said among her comments, McAleer “said she was running (for commissioner) for the sole purpose of seeing to it that Jeff Robb gets fired.”
On May 15, Port Human Resources Director Holly Hairell sent an e-mail to Port attorney David Neupert asking for review of the human resources manual regarding an employee’s involvement with campaigns.
On May 16, in e-mails sent a few hours apart, McAleer announced she would run for commissioner and also filed the whistleblower report.
The resulting investigation brought to light new facts, she said. “I had never heard that (Robb) thought I was working with Mr. Hallett to undermine his authority until the neutral fact finder interviewed me.”
“She asked me about it.”
She said Robb’s instructions had been confusing. “He had said you can talk, then said let me know. Then it was no, you can’t talk to any of the commissioners; then it was back to yes, but you have to inform me.”
She said her purpose in filing the whistleblower complaint lay in the Robb’s failure to consistently follow policies. She said, “It appeared to be favoritism. He insisted on everything being handled on a case-by-case basis rather than on set policy.”
Robb agreed that different agreements were handled in different ways, “which is consistent with what the commission wanted.”
He said each decision was based on its impact on the community — the “value proposition.” A project that might have a huge economic impact would be treated differently from one with little impact.
The commissioners speak
Hallett denies most of the charges leveled against him, saying he “can’t recall” ever attending a staff meeting when Robb wasn’t present.
McAleer said she remembered Hallett attending one meeting when Robb was on vacation, but said his input was slight. “He listened to the process of how we do things,” she said.
Hallett also flatly denied that he had ever said he didn’t want to see McHugh re-elected, another accusation leveled by Robb.
Calhoun is reticent to express a strong opinion on the divide.
He said Knifsend’s initial investigation expanded when workers reported to Knifsend that they considered the Port a “hostile workplace.”
“That can be actionable,” he said, and Knifsend had to follow up on the issue.
He said Hallett may have conferred with staff more than other commissioners did, but said that may be the only way to help employees who “can’t get satisfaction from the executive director.”
“He felt like he could help them,” he said.
But, he added, “The cardinal rule is, commissioners have to be careful about what they say. That’s the protocol. If you violate it, it causes problems every which way.”
He said in the end, having Robb resign and take another position may have been the only way to keep Robb and the senior staff. “We didn’t want to fire them.”
He added, “The solution wasn’t perfect.”
In her report, Knifsend also stepped into the debate, recommending a new mechanism should be devised that would allow unhappy staffers to communicate to commissioners through the Port’s human resources director — without fear of retaliation.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.