The Book of Employee Exodus: 3 years of staffing chaos at Spokane City Hall

click to enlarge The Book of Employee Exodus: 3 years of staffing chaos at Spokane City Hall
Daniel Walters data visualization -- City of Spokane data.
Resignations and retirements (and the occasional job abandonment) at the City of Spokane dipped during the first year of the pandemic — but spiked far higher in 2021 and 2022.

Was it a sinking ship? Or was it a shitshow? Or a train wreck? These are the questions anyone covering City Hall during the last three years has had to grapple with. We've written plenty of stories about internal chaos, employee exodus and departmental dysfunction. But consider each one of those stories individual stones in a larger mosaic. It's only when you zoom out that you can see the full shape of things.

So we've built a data explorer that lets you take a gander at four years of people who retired, resigned, or were fired, starting from the end of the David Condon administration through the first three years of the Nadine Woodward administration:

We've filtered out temp/seasonal employees, employees who left because their elected term ended, those who reached the end of the term of a fixed-period contract, and those who died. (We've also lumped together resignations with job abandonments.)

Type in the name of any employee who left during that time period, and you'll see it pop up on the chart along with their exit date, department, hourly salary and manner of exit. Desktop users can also see the number of vacant positions at the city each month from January 2021 through October 2022.

Compared with 2019, city employee departures in 2022 were nearly 30 percent higher. If you only look at resignations, there was a 60 percent increase.

So what happened? We've been writing about this for going on four years now. But to save you the time of digging through your memory banks, we've turned this into the journalistic equivalent of a clip show, complete with some new revelations here or there.

THE CONDON HOLES

We start in the halcyon days of 2019, the final year of the Condon administration. We've used it as a baseline to compare the Woodward administration to — but back then, the number of major departures was considered somewhat shocking.

And that's where the trouble with the Woodward staffing begins: Condon decided early on that he wouldn't replace a number of major staffers as they left. In some ways, it made sense. With less than a year in Condon's term left, who would want to apply for a job that may only last a few months? Besides, Condon reasoned, the new mayor might want to choose his or her own team.

And maybe that wouldn't have been as much of an issue had then-City Council President Ben Stuckart won his mayoral bid. He already had a political machine ready to slot candidates into the roles. But Woodward came in without that network, leaving her scrambling to fill key roles right as...

PANDEMIC PANDEMONIUM

click to enlarge The Book of Employee Exodus: 3 years of staffing chaos at Spokane City Hall
Daniel Walters data visualization
All state and local governments saw a spike in resignations in 2021 and 2022 — but the spike was much more pronounced in Spokane. (Percentages depicted represent the percent increase since 2019)
... a global pandemic hit.

Make no mistake — as the mayor's spokesman Brian Coddington frequently points out — the pandemic had a huge impact on pretty much every business, nonprofit and agency in the world, and the City of Spokane was no exception.

It's difficult to overstate the impact of a global pandemic on municipal governments. COVID upended workflows, forced employees to work remotely, intensified worker stress and cultivated whole new genres of ideological conflict. It sparked waves of early retirements across the country, creating a national labor shortage.

That labor shortage reversed the balance of power between management and labor. Those who were sick of their job could just leave and surely find another employer waiting with open arms.

At the City of Spokane, however, retirements actually remained relatively stable. The number of retirements were actually lower in 2020 and 2021 than in 2019. It's the resignations that went crazy the last two years.

Still, this was the period of the "Great Resignation" nationwide. Was Spokane's turmoil anything special? It's a tricky question to untangle. But here's the thing: government jobs were generally more stable than non-government jobs.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't get as granular as city positions, they do track "quits" in state and local government positions. And the increase in the number of employees quitting in the City of Spokane from 2019 to 2022 was almost triple the percentage increase of state and local government quits during that same time period. Even if you average all three years of the Woodward administration, the percent increase from 2019 was twice as sharp as in state and local governments nationally.

That said, the first eight months of the Woodward administration received bipartisan praise for its agility and responsiveness in handling the sudden pandemic, and resignations were actually much lower in 2020 — when all of a sudden...

LESS WES

...City Administrator Wes Crago was pushed out.

Oh, to be clear, he officially "resigned." (Very few people at the City of Spokane are ever flat-out fired, though there have been a few in the mayor and council offices in the last few years.)

But nobody — at least nobody that we've found — believes the Woodward administration's spin that her first city administrator simply decided that his heart was with smaller towns.

Records and sources indicate that Crago was pushed out after Woodward had a series of one-on-ones with high-level staffers about him. City Council President Breean Beggs blames holdovers from the Condon administration.

"They did a palace coup against Wes," Beggs says. "They got him out of here."

But whether Crago can be credited for the smooth sailing of the early months of the Woodward administration or not, that doesn't change the fact that the mayor had pushed out the person in charge of keeping City Hall running effectively.

In other words, at the very moment the H.M.S. Woodward Administration was navigating through treacherous, COVID-infested waters, her captain had walked the plank.

It wasn't like Woodward was the sort of mayor to take the wheel directly herself. So for six months, the city drifted without an operational head.

Finally, in late March 2021, San Diego's Johnnie Perkins was appointed. But he quickly ran into conflict with...

HOMELESS TEAMLESS
click to enlarge The Book of Employee Exodus: 3 years of staffing chaos at Spokane City Hall (2)
Daniel Walters data visualization -- federal and city of Spokane data
The point-in-time count, typically conducted in January, is always a flawed metric for gauging homelessness. But with huge housing price increases hitting Spokane, a huge increase shouldn't be a surprise. The challenge the Woodward administration has had to grapple with when it comes to homelessness has only increased.
....Neighborhoods, Housing & Human Services director Cupid Alexander.

Now, this role — and the Community Housing and Human Services leadership position it oversees — have always been a bit like the Defense Against the Dark Arts position in the Harry Potter series. It's always been cursed by high turnover. The intense workload combined with the withering criticism — from supervisors, from the public, from the City Council — has sent employee after employee seeking the relative sanctuary of Catholic Charities.

So as Cupid Alexander took the reins in November of 2020, a kind of snowball was already rolling: A key employee would resign or go on medical leave, and their workload would have to be carried by the rest of the team. And all that extra work would cause another employee to quit.

Meanwhile, Alexander couldn't stand the new city administrator. Alexander quit in June of 2021, firing off a barrage of allegations on the way out. Alexander's allegations of racial discrimination were not substantiated by a city-appointed investigator, but the investigator did find that both were to blame for "unproductive, combative discussions" and identified a "revolving door" leading to a "downward spiral."

That downward spiral kept spiraling downward. By October of 2021, the "sinking ship" of the Community Housing and Human Services department effectively left Spokane temporarily with no homeless team, right as homelessness was skyrocketing.

While the city's IT guy, Eric Finch, and an influx of temporary employees managed to keep the department afloat, the city was still crippled.

Meanwhile, Alexander's replacement, John Hall, only lasted three months before he also resigned with a flurry of criticisms of conditions within in the city, including inexperienced staff, council interference, and missed opportunities to get federal funding.
Of course, that challenge was exacerbated by the explosion of homelessness triggered by the housing crisis. Addressing the housing crisis was a top priority, which was made all the more difficult by the fact...

UN-PLANNED VACANCIES

...the City of Spokane had gone four years without a planning director. In the middle of 2021, Beggs told the Inlander that they were "down four positions in planning, at the time of the greatest housing crisis ever."

Condon had left the planning director slot empty since 2018, and it was nine months into 2020 before Woodward even started the search process for a new one. But the first search process for a planning director failed in November of 2020. And the second search process didn't start until May of 2021.

And that one also failed. (In the midst of the staffing crisis, hiring could be downright Kafkaesque: Historic Preservation Specialist Logan Camporeale had to go through three different hiring processes simply to get his temporary position made permanent.)

Ultimately, the new planning director, Spencer Gardner, wasn't hired until January 2022, at the start of Woodward's third year in office. 

The good news was that both Gardner and the new Community and Economic Development director above him, Steve MacDonald, received oodles of praise from City Council members like Beggs, developers like Kendall Yards creator Jim Frank, and employees like Camporeale. The only problem was...

DID SOMEBODY SAY MACDONALD?

... several veteran employees — we're talking employees who had been here 10 to 20 years — felt disrespected by MacDonald's management style. MacDonald clashed with longtime staffer Kris Becker, who'd been the director of development services, code enforcement and parking, and had also been part of both the team to handle COVID and the strike force to try to keep the homeless department afloat.

But Becker found herself iced out of key decisions under MacDonald — and she wasn't the only one frustrated. In March of 2022, Becker and two other long-serving members of the Development Services team went on medical leave. Only one returned — and she found that her job had been given to another employee while she was on break, possibly violating federal law. That sparked another independent investigation — this one into potential gender discrimination and medical leave retaliation.

But the investigation was inconclusive, partly because...

HR'S ROUGH AND STUFF

... the Human Resources department was just as big of a mess as any of the other departments.

Woodward's first Human Resources director, Tom Bartridge, resigned without explanation less than two months after being appointed by the mayor.

Woodward's second Human Resources director, Amber Richards, resigned "as a matter of principle" in June of 2021, after telling the Woodward administration she could no longer continue "in good faith or with good conscience."

Records show that, shortly before she left, Richards had sounded the alarm about "extraordinarily challenging conditions at skeleton staffing levels for an extended timeframe" within her department, putting an "arguably exploitive burden" on HR employees, making them "ripe for disengagement, exhaustion, and burnout."

Woodward's third HR director, Kristin Smith, resigned in June of 2022, after just five months on the job. Coddington said at the time that Smith wanted to focus on her family's winemaking business in Chelan.

By then, the bench in the department was so thin that the City had to borrow someone from the City Attorney's office to temporarily run HR.

That same month, Labor Relations Manager Meghann Steinolfson — who had previously served as the department's interim director — also resigned to take a job at Avista.

Steinolfson, who had been involved in labor negotiations over the fire department contract, had previously run into her own controversy in 2019 over potential conflicts of interest due to her relationship with Deputy Fire Chief Jay Atwood.

But by September 2022, Atwood had left the city too...

FIVE-ALARM OVERTIME FIRE

... adding to the ongoing staffing crisis in the Spokane Fire Department. By the end of 2021, the Spokane Fire Department was racking up massive overtime costs, far beyond what the city had budgeted for. Blame COVID. Blame wildfires. Blame vaccine mandates. Blame the fact that the fire department had failed to hire enough firefighters to handle the regular workload, much less a pandemic-era workload.

The good news is there's been a lot more firefighter hiring since then. And the City Council knows this is an issue. They funded a consultant study to examine police and fire overtime way back in the fall of 2020, which could have been useful for cutting costs except....

POOR STUDY SKILLS

... for the fact that study was only finished and presented this week. It took a year for the Woodward administration to actually hire a consulting firm. And when that firm, Matrix Consulting, actually began to try to start looking at the city's overtime records, it found that, thanks to slow communication from the city administration and ancient software systems, just getting usable data was a nightmare.

A study that Matrix thought was going to take less than six months ended up taking a year-and-a-half.

The city's attempt to conduct an audit of the fire department's use of sick leave was even worse. The final version of that study wasn't finished for 11 months, and by then, according to the city, the result was so flawed and behind deadline that the city refused to pay for it. The auditor, the city said, got basic facts wrong. But Melissa Preston, the accountant who conducted the study, said she'd been relying explicitly on the city's own information that had been provided to her. She says she had provided an early draft of the findings with the same information and no one had let her know there was anything wrong.

In fact, the biggest contrast between Woodward and former Mayor Condon may be the use of data: Condon was famous for being a data-driven technocrat, publishing "performance measures" for many city departments on the city's website. That ended with Woodward and COVID, preventing the public from easily seeing the impact of the pandemic and the staffing shortage on city efficiency.

The City Council has been repeatedly frustrated about getting timely information around homelessness and city finances, passing ordinances in vain. Woodward vetoed an ordinance from the City Council that tried to bump up the speed and frequency of city finance information, writing in her veto letter that the Finance Department was already
"understaffed and overworked."

City Councilman Michael Cathcart says that the city's Chief Financial Officer says the city needs more budget analysts.

"I've said, 'I will support tomorrow hiring more budget analysts'," says Cathcart. "We can't make good financial decisions without good financial data."

But so far, he says, the mayor hasn't made the request.

BUYING STABILITY WITH INSTABILITY

Right now, at least, the ship doesn't seem to be sinking. The number of departures seems to have slowed down. But that's come at a steep cost: with inflation spiking, the city bumped up its yearly pay increases for public sector union contracts, putting the city budget in peril.

And there's still a gaping hole. Right now, the city has 328 vacant positions — more than in May of last year, yet still higher than in May of 2021.

“Part of the challenge is we have really good benefits at the city,” says Council President Beggs.

The retirement plan is particularly lucrative, he notes, but it takes seven years until you’re eligible to collect on it. And in the meantime employees are required to set aside a big chunk of their paychecks.

“For a lot of entry-level jobs, you’d have better take-home pay at McDonald's,” Beggs says.

To sum it up: the city is still in desperate need of more staff. But right now, it can barely afford the ones it has. It leaves the mayor, whoever she ends up being, with a hell of a mess on her hands in 2024.

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...
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