The longtime chief of staff for the Metropolitan King County Council resigned earlier this year and received a financial settlement after alleging verbal abuse by Councilmember Rod Dembowski.

The resignation was the end result of a yearslong conflict between Dembowski and the chief of staff, Carolyn Busch, that prompted the county at one point to hire a mediator. And it was one of several allegations that Dembowski treated staff, especially female staff, in a harsh or verbally abusive manner.

The events spurred the County Council to begin writing a new code of conduct that will, if approved, apply to both staff and elected officials. Council leadership is also working on a comprehensive update to personnel policies and has created and filled a new human resources manager position for the legislative branch.

Dembowski, who has been on the County Council for eight years and is up for reelection this year, said he’s worked to improve his communication style but totally denied that any of the issues were related to gender.

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“There absolutely have been, upon reflection, instances in my eight years here where I’ve been too passionate or too blunt in communications with folks and I’ve definitely learned and I regret it,” he said. “I am truly sorry for any interaction where I have not lived up to expectations, and will keep working to be better, with particular awareness of how different people receive communication based on their lived experience.”

Council Chair Claudia Balducci documented the alleged pattern of behavior in a letter to Dembowski earlier this year.

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“I urge you to consider that this has been an ongoing series of complaints from a number of different people over a number of years,” Balducci wrote in the letter, obtained through a public records request. “I have observed two common features in these situations: First, that they often involve women on the receiving end of your harsh treatment. Second, the issues seem to arise when you feel that you are not getting something that you want.”

In addition to the conflict with Busch, Balducci writes that Dembowski was “verbally abusive” toward the council’s former chief legal counsel (a man), causing “that seasoned and highly-respected professional to offer his resignation on the spot.”

She wrote that Dembowski joined a Zoom meeting of council staffers, the only elected official in the meeting, and lobbied for them to accept his policy proposal and issue it as their recommendation.

His presence, Balducci wrote, made staff uncomfortable.

“Even if you are completely correct on the substance of an issue at hand, the rightness of your policy position does not justify your use your position of power to pressure or bully staff or colleagues,” she wrote.

“A number of colleagues and subordinate staff have spoken to me about the stress they have experienced based on your behavior toward them or that they have observed toward others. I have heard from other leaders in the branch that they, too, have been approached by staff members with serious concerns,” Balducci wrote. “I have shared with you on more than one occasion how I have personally felt disrespected by the way you treated me in front of others.”

Balducci said Thursday she didn’t feel that Dembowski had violated council workplace policies, but she wrote the letter because “I wanted to stop getting complaints from people about how they felt after interactions with him. And, to be fair, the complaints did stop.”

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“Mistrust” and “hopelessness”

Busch, 58, began working for the County Council in 2013 after serving as chief of staff for Democrats in the state Senate. Within a year, she became County Council chief of staff, overseeing the budget of the 150-person legislative branch, and directly supervising a staff of about 50. She left the position in 2017 to work as a consultant in Olympia, but didn’t like it and was rehired six months later. The council chief of staff works for all nine council members and is one of only two positions in the legislative branch that reports to the council directly.

Carolyn Busch, the longtime chief of staff for the King County Council. She alleges a pattern of verbal abuse by Councilmember Rod Dembowski. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

In 2019, Busch was accused by other staff members of yelling and swearing and creating a hostile work environment at a meeting. An investigation found that her conduct was inappropriate but not discriminatory, and recommended executive coaching.

“I made a mistake, I owned my mistake completely, and I changed my behavior,” Busch told The Seattle Times.

Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said Busch stayed in the job longer than any other chief of staff in recent memory.

“I think it’s a very difficult job,” Upthegrove said. “I was very, very disappointed to see her go and think very highly of her.”

The conflict between her and Dembowski dates back to at least 2018 when, according to emails and memos revealed through public disclosure requests, Busch and four other women approached the county prosecuting attorney with a complaint about Dembowski’s behavior.

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It wasn’t a criminal matter at all, but they were unsure where else to address their complaint, Busch said. The council’s policies, at the time, didn’t provide any great options for staff to make complaints against elected officials.

“Others had gone to previous council chairs before and it just wasn’t a venue for change,” Busch said.

Busch said she and the four other women saw a pattern in Dembowski’s treatment of them.

“I pointed out that I had four women very angry with their treatment by you and that I wasn’t pleased either,” she wrote to Dembowski in 2019, copying three other council members. “I said that we never used the word ‘discrimination’ and that we were very careful about that. We said we each felt treated differently than other people and there was enough commonality between us, we felt there was a pattern and this was problematic.”

In 2019, Dembowski was the chair of the County Council. The co-vice chairs at the time, Balducci and Reagan Dunn, stepped in to organize mediation sessions between Dembowski and Busch.

They hired a local firm, Agreement Dynamics, which met individually and together with Busch and Dembowski for about 15 hours in late 2019 and early 2020 and was paid about $4,600.

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The mediator, in a memo summarizing one of their meetings, wrote that both Busch and Dembowski “feel vulnerable and this has been very stressful.”

“Both have experienced mistrust and feeling of hopelessness. Some assumptions about ill intent have fueled this,” the mediator wrote. “Both genuinely want a positive working relationship.”

Both parties agreed to move on and work on building a better relationship, according to the mediator’s memo.

Ultimately though, it proved unworkable.

“It was a commitment in words only and we’d have a very civil conversation and then it would just go back to him literally making it very clear that he was ducking, he was taking a different hallway rather than speaking to me,” Busch said. “It was very, for lack of a better word, juvenile.”

Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she’s always found Dembowski “respectful and calm.”

“I never observed anything like that toward her or toward other staff,” Kohl-Welles said. “But that doesn’t mean things don’t happen if you don’t see them.”

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In August 2020, Busch said she asked the council to conduct an “independent informal investigation” into Dembowski.

“I wanted it to be informal because I didn’t want it to get to this point where it’s in the media,” she said. “I really was hoping for resolution.”

But, she said, no investigation ever happened.

In May, nine months later, a law firm hired by the county to look into the matter summarized the allegations: There was one against Dembowski and several against Busch. Both were accused of retaliation. Busch was accused of making “racially discriminatory and/or inappropriate comments.” Both Busch and Dembowski deny the allegations. Further discussion and investigation was recommended.

Busch left in June, agreeing to a $33,000 settlement — the salary difference between the chief of staff job and her new job — in exchange for dropping “grievances, issues, concerns, and complaints.” She took a job with the county’s Department of Human Resources.

“Current investigations involving and related to Busch are permanently suspended,” the settlement says.

“The chief of staff really reported that she had been treated, what’s the word I’m looking for, wrongly, harshly, by the chair and that he wasn’t managing her, as her day-to-day manager in a way that was appropriate or healthy and she wanted us to intervene,” Balducci said. “People were trying to do their best here, but we had interpersonal conflict and it was not able to be resolved and it’s unfortunate.”

“I think we had two highly functioning, very passionate professionals who got into a series of disagreements over important issues and working together weren’t able to de-escalate those issues without some professional guidance,” Dunn said. “After a fair amount of work and intervention by some folks at the legislative branch, it made the most sense to pursue a settlement where parties went their separate ways.”