FERNDALE, Wash. — At the last regular meeting of the Ferndale City Council on September 3rd, councilmember Keith Olson was formally admonished by the council. But, at the time, little information was available regarding why he was being admonished.
After the formal admonishment, Olson said “I have no comments at this time as the city has refused to its legal obligations to provide me with written copies of materials used in this so-called investigation. They keep extending their own dates to provide me with the materials. Yet here we are with a 4-page resolution written by the city attorney, not the council. If the city ever fulfills their legal obligation, I will have a lengthy rebuttal at a future council meeting.”
City Attorney Dannon Traxler explained during the meeting the information about the investigation could not be released as it was the subject of public records requests that were pending to allow the opportunity for anyone mentioned in the requests to file a protest against filling the requests.
Documents released yesterday as a result of a public records request submitted by My Ferndale News explain what Olson was accused of and the winding path the process took as city staff determined the appropriate process to investigate.
According to documents released yesterday, September 5th, a hostile work environment complaint was filed against Olson on June 3rd by a city employee. The documents provided had the complainant’s name redacted.
According to the complaint filed by the city employee, they were made aware of conversations Olson had with other city staff where he had asked for the complainant’s employment with the city to be terminated for not being a “team player.” These comments had occurred over a year ago and, according to the complaint, began after a member of Olson’s family had not been hired after testing for an open officer position in the Ferndale Police Department.
Later, it got back to the complainant from city staff that Olson had made comments about the complainant “showing favoritism to certain officers.” The complaint went on to describe an ongoing pattern of negative and disparaging remarks to others by Olson.
“I was told Councilman Olson continued making negative comments to [redacted] here and there but, I wasn’t given any details. Although this was out of place, I believed this was still due to Mr Olson’s personal upset regarding his son not being hired and I carried on with my duties trying to ignore these remarks.”
Olson then reportedly complained to city staff in early May about a Ferndale Police officer using a police vehicle to travel from an authorize training event in south Seattle to a family member’s sporting event in Olympia the following day. The complainant said they were told Olson used a derogatory term about their religion when he accused them of approving the extracurricular use of the city vehicle for someone of the same faith because they were “running a Mormon mafia up there.”
“At the time this was told to me I did not know of the complaint against [the officer] however, when I returned to my office I checked into it and found that [their] supervisor had received the complaint regarding [the officer’s] vehicle use and had already started to investigate the situation.
It’s normal practice that I am not usually informed of a small policy violation until all the facts are gathers and presented, usually with a recommendation of action from the supervisor.”
The result of the internal investigation within the Police Department resulted in the officer reimbursing the city for the fuel cost of the unauthorized use of the vehicle and a disciplinary letter being placed in their personnel file according to the complaint.
“I understand the concern in this situation and agree the department vehicle should not have been used in this manner however, if a councilmember has a genuine concern for a possible violation he or she should have brought that to my attention, or passed it on to [redacted] in a professional and reasonable manner, without disparaging comments and name calling.”
An employee grievance against an elected official poised challenges when it came to identifying who should investigate the matter according to emails between city staff that were provided in response to a public records request. Policies laid out within the City Employees handbook are different than the policies identified within the City Councilmembers handbook.
Mayor Jon Mutchler voluntarily removed himself from any dealings with the complaint since he and Olson were both running for mayor in the August 6th Primary Election according to an email he sent to the complainant on June 3rd.
City Administrator Jori Burnett also recused himself from involvement due to being named as a potential witness. As a result, Burnett forwarded investigation responsibilities to City Clerk and Human Resources Director Susan Duncan via an email dated June 3rd.
But, Duncan said she determined she did not have the authority to conduct an investigation of an elected official and informed the complainant via email on June 5th they could appeal this decision which would put their complaint back on the mayor’s desk in the form of an appeal from the complainant.
The complainant did appeal according to an email dated June 6th.
This time, Mutchler, again noting his potential conflict of interest, delegated the responsibility to investigate the matter to City Councilmember and Mayor Pro Tempore Kate Bishop according to a June 10th email that advised her to “work with our City Attorney and City Administrator on next steps.”
The investigation appeared to begin in July according to email exchanges.
An email dated August 9th from Bishop to all Ferndale Councilmembers detailed the results of her investigation which included interviews with the complainant and city staff.
Bishop repeated the complainant’s claims from their written complaint in her report.
Bishop also interviewed a city staff person who said they had been approached by Olson with concerns of preferential treatment in the Police Department and that Olson had used the term Mormon mafia but the staff did not take what was being said too seriously as this was “Keith being Keith” according to Bishop’s report.
The city staff person came to the conclusion the complainant could not have given preferential treatment in the incident of unauthorized vehicle use, referring to how the complainant was not involved in the approval process nor in the handling the subsequent complaint.
The city staff person also noted seeing the complainant raise their hand, a means of being recognized in order to speak, but then being ignored by Olson during a July 10th council committee that Olson was running.
Bishop said in her report that she contacted Olson on July 9th and 26th to schedule an interview and that he declined on both occasions. During the July 9th conversation, he denied using the term “Mormon mafia” and said there was no reason for the interview. During the July 26th exchange, he replied with his concern about Bishop’s authority to conduct an interview.
An email from Traxler to Olson dated July 31st asked Olson if he wanted a public hearing or a public meeting on the matter to be held during an upcoming city council meeting instead of having the investigation report discussed in executive session. He responded with a request for a week extension to talk with Bishop. He also asked under what RCW, WAC or other law Bishop was “allowed” to perform the investigation. He also asked about the city’s insurance company’s stance on a request for the city to pay for Olson’s legal counsel. No response to these inquiries was included in the public records request response.
On August 12th, Bishop interviewed Olson. The complaint was provided for him to read. Bishop reported that Olson said he never had the conversation in which he is reported to have called for the complainant’s employment to be terminated. Bishop’s report shows that Olson also stated his family member’s application to work in the Ferndale Police Department “had nothing to do with this” and that he happily employed elsewhere.
Olson told Bishop the grievance was politically motivated and said the lack of a timeline and dates regarding the events in the complaint were worth noting.
In his account of events, Bishop reported, in April or May a group of employees from the Police Department came to him with concerns of an officer receiving preferential treatment with the most recent complaint being the unauthorized use of the city vehicle. Olson said that while he could not do anything about their concerns, he could pass them on to Burnett.
Bishop reported that Olson said in the interview he did use the term “Mormon mafia” while speaking with city staff but that was quoting the employees who had voiced their concerns.
Bishop said that based on her interviews she had come to some conclusions:
- “It is more likely than not” Olson used the term Mormon mafia of his own volition
- Olson’s behaviors have the potential for creating a hostile work environment
- It is “very unlikely” any preferential treat was given by the complainant regarding the unauthorized use of the city vehicle.
- “It appears some Ferndale Police Department employees are repeatedly and improperly appealing to Councilmember Olson, sometimes with sensitive case and/or personnel information they are not authorized to disclose,” rather than reporting concerns through the appropriate chain of command.
- There is not enough evidence to support the claim Olson called for the complainant’s employment to be terminated.
Bishop provided the following recommendations to the City Council (summarized):
- A public declaration of admonishment shall be read and entered into the record at the next possible City Council meeting.
- There will be no toleration of discriminatory and retaliatory behavior by Olson toward the complainant, any city employee or citizen of Ferndale.
- A review of the Ferndale Police Department should occur within 90 days regarding the conduct of employees disclosing information to Olson. This would include educating employees about proper channels and procedures for addressing concerns.
- Olson should be removed from his position as Chair of the Finance & Administration Council Committee.
- Councilmembers should follow the complaint process outlined in the Ferndale City Council Ethics Handbook, using the Ethics Complaint Form.
THE COUNCIL’S DECISION
Bishop’s report on her investigation and subsequent recommendations were considered by the Ferndale City Council, without Olson’s presence, in an executive session during the August 19th City Council meeting. Upon to returning to an open meeting, it was moved and seconded to direct city staff to draft a Declaration of Public Admonishment to be read into the record at the next regular Council meeting. The motion passed by a 6 to 1 vote with Olson opposed.
During the September 3rd regular meeting of the Ferndale City Council, Bishop read the several page declaration of admonishment (PDF) into the record.
After the declaration of admonishment had been read into the meeting record, Mutchler addressed Ferndale Police Chief Kevin Turner who was in attendance. “I would like to address Chief Turner and Mrs. Turner. 3 years ago I asked you two to leave Grantsville, Utah to move to Ferndale. I’m quite confident you didn’t expect these turns of events. But I want to pay my regrets now that we’ve gone though this and hope that you have a long and successful future as our chief of police.”