The Port of Seattle’s efforts to build public trust are undermined by secrecy around its $500,000 payout in a harassment case involving its former chief lawyer.
The Port of Seattle and its elected commissioners need to provide a fuller explanation of why it paid $500,000 to its top lawyer after a sexual-harassment allegation.
The port received a complaint about harassment of a female subordinate by General Counsel Craig Watson, according to port officials. It investigated and found that the incident did not warrant firing him. Watson denied the validity of the complaint and planned to challenge it at a due-process hearing.
Even so, the port commission and its new executive director, Stephen Metruck, decided that they had “lost trust and confidence” in Watson and wanted him to go. Rather than go through a disciplinary hearing, they agreed to a settlement paying him $500,000 to leave.
This comes as Metruck, who started in February, is working to restore public trust in an agency marked by ethical lapses under previous leadership.
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Because the general counsel also handles ethics complaints the person must have absolute trust, Metruck explained. That is reasonable and Metruck’s efforts to improve public faith in port management by maintaining a high bar of accountability are commendable.
The port was also right to promptly disclose the settlement it reached with Watson.
What’s problematic is the lack of transparency around the nature of the complaint. This is needed for the public to make an informed decision about whether such an extraordinary payout was warranted.
The port claims that further details of the situation are protected by attorney-client privilege because the complaint was handled by attorneys. That’s a cop out and undermines the spirit of the state Public Records Act.
The act also provides numerous exemptions to protect individual privacy and the privacy of victims.
Disclosure of the circumstances is especially important in light of the great progress recently to address sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace.
This progress is built on transparency that reveals the nature and extent of the problem. Such knowledge empowers victims to identify and report violations and raises overall awareness of boundaries and acceptable behavior.
A memo from Metruck to the port commission last week raises additional questions about the nature of the complaint that led to a $500,000 payout. It said the port “determined that the incident was insufficient to support discharge for cause, as required for a decades-long Port employee.”
Spending large amounts of tax dollars based on secret complaints and undisclosed internal reviews is not good public policy. In this case, it undermines the port’s efforts to be more transparent and trustworthy.