Monday, August 8, 2016

Councilwoman Stratton knows firsthand how the city handles harassment — she once filed a legal claim because of it

Posted By on Mon, Aug 8, 2016 at 12:27 PM

click to enlarge Councilwoman Stratton knows firsthand how the city handles harassment — she once filed a legal claim because of it
Daniel Walters photo
Karen Stratton discusses her outrage with the city in a press conference after the release of the Cappel report last month

Two weeks ago, as Councilwoman Karen Stratton sat in a tiny conference room with two other councilmembers, she laid into the Condon administration for the revelations of the massive independent investigation into how well the city had handled the issues concerning former Police Chief Frank Straub. In particular, Stratton had thoughts on what the report revealed about the city's "completely useless" Human Resources department — which had been warned repeatedly about Straub's abusive management style but did little to address it. 

As we touched upon briefly in this week's print story in the Inlander, Stratton is speaking from experience. Four years ago, she herself experienced a hostile work environment while working at the city, sought help from Human Resources, demoted herself to a different job to get out of the situation, and eventually filed a legal claim against the city. The resulting settlement was nearly $50,000 and required the city to implement  "anti-bullying training."

Until now, Stratton's experience hasn't been reported in detail. It never came up as an issue during her often brutal electoral battle with Evan Verduin last fall. But it's important to understanding Karen Stratton's views on the city, civil service and Human Resources. It highlights her frustration — even anger — with the Condon administration. It also shows that harassment isn't always yelling, insults or off-color comments. Sometimes, it's the lack of interaction. Sometimes it's the silent treatment or the clear message that your coworkers want you to quit.  

"I will tell you that looking back it was probably the best learning experience I ever had. I learned a lot. I learned how it felt to be ignored. It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever been through," Stratton says. "It was an awful, lonely, humiliating experience."

According to her legal claim, here's what happened: 

A decade ago, while Jim West was mayor, Stratton was hired to be the public information coordinator for the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System. But in 2008, Mayor Mary Verner appointed Stratton as a senior executive assistant, with the understanding that she could revert back to being a public information coordinator if she chose. 

At the end of 2011, David Condon was elected mayor, and Stratton was removed from the position. Stratton says she wasn't surprised or upset by this— it's not unusual for a new mayor to want to put in his own staff.  It's what happened next where things got ugly.

Stratton decided to activate a power in her union contract and revert back to her old job. Once again, she becomes the public information officer for the union. But in doing so, she kicked out Robyn Dunlap from that job. Dunlap was moved to a lower paying "project position" instead. 

It didn't go well. As soon as she returned, many of her coworkers began giving her the cold shoulder. Ice cold. 

According to the claim, "Dunlap and [Recycling Coordinator] Suzanne Tresko harassed and bullied Stratton in a concerted effort to force her to quit so Dunlap could return to the position."  

On one occasion, Dunlap told Stratton that she should "do the right thing" and step down. Afterward, Dunlap straight out refused to speak with Stratton. Stratton would greet Dunlap, but Dunlap wouldn't respond to her greetings, or even talk to her at all. Instead of being willing to give Stratton information so she could get up to speed, Dunlap would tell her to first give questions to Tresko, who would then pass them along to Dunlap.

And Dunlap wasn't the only one giving Stratton the silent treatment. Education Coordinator Ann Murphy refused to speak with her for several weeks as well. 

On Jan. 11, Stratton complained about this to her boss, then-Regional Solid Waste Director Russ Menke. The next day, she went to the union, civil services and the Spokane's HR department to complain about her treatment.

"Neither Menke nor the City of Spokane followed their own policy of conducting a prompt investigation into Stratton's complaint of harassment in the workplace," according to Stratton's claim.

HR simply suggested that Stratton take Tresko and Murphy out for coffee to discuss the problem. 

The Straub investigator, former federal prosecutor Kris Cappel, asked her about her experience with human resources in this situation.

"It was humiliating. It was frustrating. It was tiring," Stratton told Cappel. "It made me feel like I wasn't important enough to move forward and that, you know, 'so what, so you were treated poorly. Get over it.' And I wasn't willing to do that because I didn't think that anybody should have to go through something like that." 

Tresko, according to Stratton's claim, did take Stratton out to lunch, but only to ask her how she could get her to "move along" out of her current job, possibly by paying the difference between the public information officer job and any new one. 

By the middle of February of 2012, their harassment had succeeded: No longer able to tolerate the "cruel and insensitive" treatment, Stratton left the job for a position in the city clerk's office, giving up a better salary and benefits. Dunlap was rehired — but was laid off a year later as part of Condon's reorganization of the communication's department.

The Inlander attempted to contact Dunlap through a Facebook message, and to contact Tresko through the city's communications office, but has not yet heard back from either. 

"What you learn very quickly is that, in order for you to get anywhere, you have to file a complaint with HR," Stratton says. "Filing the formal claim was the last thing that I wanted to do."

It took a written complaint, three months after her initial informal complaint, to actually spark action from the city.  Until she actually filed that complaint, nothing had happened.

The Cappel report revealed that the city rarely takes action unless a formal complaint is filed. But Stratton says that filing that complaint was her last resort. 

"For me to ask for help is a big deal," Stratton says. 

She says she gets why no one ever filed a formal HR complaint against Straub, despite how he treated his staff. 

"I can understand it. I can totally understand it," Stratton says. "It was a situation where you just felt like HR wasn’t going to do anything about it."

Ultimately, the city's independent investigator found that Stratton had been subject to behavior that violated the city's harassment policies. But because she had demoted herself into a job in the city clerk's office, Stratton says, she had to file a legal claim to get compensated for her lost wages and damages. The claim asked for nearly $185,000 in damages.

Ultimately, the city settled with Stratton, giving her $5,260 in lost wages and giving her and her attorney $44,540 for general damages. To her, the whole experience made her think: If handling a hostile work environment was tough for her, how tough would it be for other city employees in similar situations? 

"I’m not afraid to stand up and speak up for myself. I think I’m confident," Stratton says. "For somebody like me to feel so unimportant to anybody, I can’t imagine how an employee [can deal with it] who doesn’t have that confidence and doesn’t have that strength and just the plain stubbornness to follow it through. What do they do? Who talks to them?" 

In the aftermath of the Straub report, the Condon administration has recognized the need to improve its human resources policies. Already, it says, it's adding a telephone line to allow employees to anonymously lodge complaints. 

Karen Stratton Legal Claim by DanielWalters on Scribd

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...