A law firm investigated allegations that Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff created a mentally unsafe work environment, which included demeaning language.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff was denied a performance bonus Thursday, as the agency’s board members told him to improve his abrasive management style.
Board members, an investigator and even Rogoff blame some friction on his East Coast attitude conflicting with a soft-spoken Northwest work culture — especially following retired CEO Joni Earl, beloved for her collegial and unflappable manner.
The board of local elected officials voted 11-2, with five absent, to order him to complete a leadership development plan, and be supervised by three board members, while awarding zero bonus for 2017, out of a possible 10 percent, or $31,290.
He left the top job at the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C., to lead multibillion- dollar Sound Transit in late 2015, under a three-year contract.
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Rogoff still receives an annual 5 percent raise, to $328,545.
The agency Thursday released an outside attorney’s investigation into episodes alleged by employees, that Rogoff demeaned colleagues and frequently used variants of the f-word, during his early months on the job.
“The concerns regarding the CEO’s leadership style have lessened, but nevertheless persist,” attorney Steven Winterbauer wrote.
Last September, Rogoff said, “Honey, that ain’t never going to happen,” to a female staffer, while discussing an outside stakeholder’s request about the future Northgate-Lynnwood light-rail line, according to the report.
The staffer felt insulted and complained to human resources. Rogoff apologized to her for using the word “honey.”
The report also mentions a Black History Month speech in 2016 where he “reportedly stated or implied” African Americans require more mentoring or assistance than others.
Rogoff said remarks were taken out of context, and he meant to promote collective responsibility to help people advance. The agency says in 2016 its construction workforce includes 27 percent people of color, and it increased apprenticeship to help underserved communities and veterans.
The turmoil arises as Sound Transit lays trackway to Northgate and Overlake, while embarking on the $54 billion voter-approved Sound Transit 3 plan for eight light-rail extensions.
Among early 2016 allegations, he commented internally that “people around here are just so (expletive) lazy,” according to human-resource notes released Thursday.
Discussing whether to spend board-meeting time to hand out staff-training awards, he reportedly said many board members “are just a bunch of small-town mayors with nothing to do.”
Asking to turn off flawed arrival-time signs at UW Station, he muttered, “is there a history of insubordination in this agency?” He then mentioned, “When I give direction it’s for action not for rumination,” while shoving a chair into the meeting table, notes say.
When some staff couldn’t make an ST3 meeting during spring vacations, Rogoff said, “the only excuse I will accept is if they are on life support,” the notes say.
All of the allegations were appropriately handled, were minor, or the agency otherwise met legal obligations, Winterbauer found.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, a board member, said Rogoff is making progress, and the board can judge late this year whether to renew or end his contract.
“When he applied to become the CEO of Sound Transit, I cautioned him that his directness is going to run up against a very different way of interacting that we’re accustomed to in the Pacific Northwest, and he was going to have to modify his manner and understand the local culture if he is to become successful,” Constantine said.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan voted against the performance plan, saying it isn’t enough.
“Sound Transit is not felt to be a safe workplace for a lot of employees, that they feel they cannot act without repercussions, and there are many who feel their work is not valued,” Durkan said.
Rogoff issued a written response: “Prior to coming to Sound Transit, I was accustomed to working in environments where, when you were producing a major piece of work at the core of the agency’s mission, it was ‘all hands on deck, 24/7.’ ”
He says some allegations are accurate, while others are false or misquoted. Rogoff said he accepted the “wake-up call” from the board.
“My workplace demeanor in early 2016 was the wrong approach. I take full responsibility for it,” he wrote.
Rogoff already underwent management coaching between mid-2016 and mid-2017, with a North Seattle consultant, estimated in a draft workplan at $24,280.
Meanwhile, he was forming a “change leadership team” to make the agency more nimble, a stressful shake-up that revealed internal finger-pointing.
“We have been waiting for people to retire and these bad habits to disappear but this is not happening,” says a summary of a workshop meeting, released to The Seattle Times through the state Public Records Act. “There is a feeling with some that they are just going to wait it out — they are going to wear down Peter or they will retire and it won’t matter.”
Board Chairman Dave Somers, the Snohomish County executive, said change is necessary and difficult. He praised Rogoff for working early with communities to begin ST3 design.
Last year Rogoff received a 7.5 percent bonus, or $22,350. That reward followed the ST3 victory, the opening of University of Washington, Capitol Hill and Angle Lake stations in 2016, and signing a master-credit agreement to win low-interest federal loans.
Among positives in 2017, light-rail ridership increased 8 percent to 72,000 weekday boardings, building upon earlier momentum. Sounder commuter trains began operating last year with Positive Train Control (PTC), a crash-avoidance system.
On the negative side, light-rail trains were late or missing 11 percent of trips, express buses were late 17 percent of the time, and commuter trains were late 9 percent of trips, all missing 2017 performance goals.
Thursday’s board critique is entirely about Rogoff’s management style, and unrelated to delays in bringing light-rail to Lynnwood, Somers said. He said Rogoff built good rapport lately with north-end cities.
Last year, Rogoff acknowledged the Northgate-Lynnwood line was trending $517 million over its $2.1 billion budget — so Sound Transit isn’t ready yet to secure a $1.1 billion federal grant, even if the Trump Administration and Congress agree to send the money.
This winter, the Lynnwood project team found $190 million in design trims, but the agency still faces soaring construction and land costs. The promised 2023 opening date will slip to 2024, and maybe beyond.