By Mark St.J. Couhig, August 21, 2013, Sequim Gazette
E-mails released to the Sequim Gazette through a Public Records Act request show Port of Port Angeles Commissioner Jim Hallett and Colleen McAleer, the Port’s director of business development, worked in concert to oust the Port’s executive director, Jeff Robb.
McAleer is now running against Del DelaBarre for a seat on the commission.
The two were partially successful, with Robb stepping down on June 24. Over the objections of Hallett, Robb was immediately re-hired by Commissioners Paul McHugh and John Calhoun as the director of the Port’s environmental affairs, a newly created position, at a salary equal to his pay as executive director.
Robb cited health concerns for his resignation; Calhoun also described a revolt among workers that he said made it impossible for Robb to fulfill his duties.
The new e-mails lend credence to Calhoun’s statements.
In one e-mail, dated May 15, Hallett wrote to McAleer to describe the efforts he had made to convince fellow commissioner John Calhoun to vote to remove Robb from his position.
“As you can now see clearly (not that you didn’t already know), I do not have the one more vote I need to make a change at the top.”
“With all the info I have and with all the staff and employee and public input I have received (but cannot disclose unless the folks who talked to me permit me to speak up on their behalf) it is painfully obvious no one should be forced to wait until Jeff retires.”
“That response from Calhoun is very disappointing.”
In an obvious reference to McHugh, Hallett wrote, “We do not need to discuss the other commissioner.”
Hallett encouraged McAleer to file a whistleblower complaint against Robb, saying he would do so himself “if I had a few more details.”
“Unfortunately,” he wrote, “it will take someone of courage (like you) to file a complaint of ‘hostile work environment’ to get one commissioner to wake up and have the integrity to act.”
“And you know I will back you or any employee who believes they have been harmed by the director and are willing to go ‘on the record.’”
“There is risk involved to me, but I can deal with that.”
On May 16, in e-mails sent a few hours apart, McAleer announced she would run for commissioner and also filed the whistleblower report.
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.
The investigator’s report, issued June 10, concluded that no laws had been broken and that the Port’s policies had been followed.
Knifsend also concluded McAleer had filed the whistleblower complaint in “good faith.”
Following her initial report, Knifsend issued three more updates, each one delving into staff complaints regarding Robb’s conduct as executive director and Robb’s own complaints about Hallett and McAleer leading a staff revolt against him.
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.”
She also declared McAleer had not led a group effort to have Robb fired.
Knifsend also addressed accusations by Robb that Hallett had undermined his authority, and emboldened his mutinous staff, by working with them directly.
In response, Knifsend declared that Hallett had not interfered with the performance of the executive director.
But in another e-mail exchange released to the Gazette, Hallett, who serves as president of the board, declared he had the authority to make decisions regarding the actions of Port staff.
McAleer had sent an e-mail to Hallett describing a “great opportunity” that would likely be missed because Robb was out of the office.
Hallett wrote back, “As President of the Commission, I represent the policy-making and overall direction voice of the Port.”
“You have my approval to engage in this process to determine what the Port can do to be of help. This seems to be right in line with our Strategic Plan. GO FOR IT!”
Calhoun told the Gazette he disagreed with that interpretation. “In the absence of an executive director, staff might naturally seek direction on issues beyond their authority. We made it clear that that type of direction would come from the Commission as a body and we were prepared to meet as often as necessary to provide the authority.”
“I would expect staff, faced with an emergency, to take appropriate action, even if the action was beyond their authority, and to advise the Commission as soon as possible.”
Perhaps most importantly, Robb had declared to Knifsend that he felt he was being subjected to a concerted effort by McAleer and Hallett to have him removed from his position.
“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.”
Knifsend consistently has declined to respond to questions about her investigation, saying to do so might compromise “the integrity of the process.” She has not responded to an e-mail request from the Gazette that she reconsider her conclusions in light of the newly uncovered evidence, which contradicts her findings.
Hallett hasn’t returned phone calls from the Gazette.
McAleer said she doesn’t believe the email “is a big deal,” saying she has gone on record as having spoken to all three of the commissioners. She said her internal whistleblower complaint was prompted by the failure of board members to take action against Robb during their May 13 meeting. Though the action took place in executive session, comments later provided by Robb indicate that the discussion included an effort to have him removed, as Hallett’s May 15 email, also suggests. The issue arose over a heated conversation between Robb and former Airport and Marina Manager Doug Sandau in which Robb cursed. Robb said he was required to apologize to staff for his language and that he did so.
McAleer declined to specify the incident, but said, “It had nothing to do with me, but I realized, Wow, they’re not going to do anything about it.”
“So I filed a complaint.”
Deciding to file the complaint, “wasn’t some long ongoing event. My issues were policy-based, and he wouldn’t let me fulfill the mission of the Port.”
Out of sight
The e-mails also provide further details on Robb’s resignation and his immediate re-hiring in a newly created position.
The State Auditor is expected to begin an investigation of the commission’s actions beginning in September.
Many observers have suggested that the hiring of Robb into his new position was a fait accompli before the public vote was taken on June 24.
In one e-mail exchange between Robb and Calhoun, Calhoun provides suggested revisions to the resignation statement Robb delivered on June 24. He says “citing health reasons is very appropriate,” and adds, “Announcing the new job title and duties is appropriate as well.”
McHugh denies the decision was made before the June 24 meeting. He said that in light of the controversy roiling the staff, the commissioners were seeking a solution and discussed the new position during executive session. The idea of hiring Robb as director of environmental affairs was on the table, he said, and Calhoun was chosen to work singly with Robb to work out the details.
“It was moving in that direction,” McHugh said. “But we made the decision in public, with a public vote.”