State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson formally reprimanded the operations director of state ferries, saying he disrespected her during a phone conversation in June.
Steve Rodgers, a 42-year employee, is on paid administrative leave, creating a gap in upper management for a ferry system that has endured a number of mishaps in recent months.
The move came after the state’s unsuccessful attempt to recruit a new ferries director to replace David Moseley, who retired in April.
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The reprimand letter and personnel files were released Wednesday to The Seattle Times, in response to a public-records request.
On June 17, Peterson told the entire Washington State Ferries (WSF) staff through email she was reopening the hiring process. Capt. George Capacci, interim director, had withdrawn from consideration the previous weekend, and Peterson chose not to hire the other finalist, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, her message explained.
Within minutes, Rodgers replied to Peterson via email: “Considering the union pressure and influence in Olympia they have I doubt this is entirely true.”
Peterson called Rodgers. Her reprimand letter describes Rodgers’ attitude during the phone conversation as “belligerent, challenging and unprofessional.” She wrote that Rodgers told her during the conversation that “unions only have my [Peterson’s] ear,” and that she did not listen to management.
The “union pressure” remark in Rodgers’ email is an apparent reference to a pro-union letter that urged Peterson to reject Capacci for the top job. A letter signed by five captains — union members in the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots — blamed Capacci for pushing an “anti-labor agenda” that harmed morale, and for downplaying the issue of boats designed with a slight lean (they’ve since been leveled). The five captains urged Peterson to choose the other finalist, Ladenburg.
Capacci later said in news interviews he pulled out for personal reasons.
Peterson’s reprimand of Rodgers concluded with several directives, such as “Support efforts of creating a positive work environment” and “Refrain from emotionally reacting, and instead react with strategy and calmness.”
A second recruitment effort for a ferries chief is under way. It attracted more than 80 applications, and three potential finalists are being considered, said Lars Erickson, spokesman for Peterson.
Erickson said the Washington State Department of Transportation cannot comment further on the “ongoing personnel matter.” Erickson would not say how long Rodgers might be on leave.
Rodgers gave a brief statement Wednesday: “I respectfully disagree with the reprimand, but my hope is to move forward in a collaborative effort to find solutions to the many complicated issues facing WSF.”
While on leave, he is under orders to stay at home and be available to take calls in the daytime.
Rodgers, 58, joined the ferry system in June 1972. He worked his way up from jobs at waterfront terminals, became director of operations in 2007, and is currently paid $122,200 a year.
Among his job assignments, as outlined by Moseley in 2009, was to “assist in division-wide expenditure reduction efforts.” He has represented management in difficult negotiations with the maritime unions. Perennially tight budgets, and changed staffing requirements by the Coast Guard, have increased the pressure.
His personnel files include at least four commendation letters from years ago, and a favorable 2009 evaluation by Moseley, who rated him “above standards” or better in eight of nine areas. “Steve is an effective communicator, particularly verbally,” the evaluation notes, going on to say he shows expertise and kept positive relationships with his team.
Moseley attributed occasional employee conflicts to “his responsibility to hold people accountable.” One criticism was that Rodgers needed to prioritize time better, to quickly fix issues reported by customers.
This year’s tiff between Peterson and Rodgers comes after another personnel issue.
Rodgers’ son, Josh Rodgers, a ticket-seller at the Fauntleroy ferry terminal, was fired in late 2013 after accusations that he took for personal use $529 out of an $800 “working fund.” Each seller has this fund on hand to make change for customers.
According to a report by ferries management, Josh Rodgers maintained he needed gas money to commute to work, and was only borrowing the money.
In an internal ferries email last fall, Doug Schlief, a regional terminal manager, worried about the case sparking “fleet gossip” by people wishing to embarrass Steve Rodgers. Schlief also wrote that Steve Rodgers removed himself from fact-finding or disciplinary decisions involving his son, according to records released to The Times last month.
Union representatives have challenged the firing of Josh Rodgers.
The employees’ code-of-conduct agreement forbids personal use of the working fund, but it’s not among the six violations that would automatically cause someone to be fired.
News reports about Steve Rodgers’ leave that were circulated statewide in August mentioned the son’s firing but noted that records about the cash-handling case did not contain a connection to Steve Rodgers’ leave.
State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, has said the lack of an operations director may have contributed to mishaps this summer, such as boat breakdowns and loading the wrong number of passengers.
While Rodgers stays at home, three other upper-management jobs at WSF are unfilled.