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Washam’s troubles are a public concern

Post by Kim Bradford on Oct. 6, 2009 at 7:38 pm |
February 17, 2010 8:10 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Vengeance will be Dale Washam’s, or so it would appear from the details of a union complaint alleging unfair work practices.

Teamsters Local Union 117 contends that the Pierce County assessor-treasurer is interfering with and retaliating for employees’ participation in union activities, and is refusing to bargain changes in pay and working conditions.

Washam certainly wouldn’t be the first boss to run afoul of labor laws. But there’s more to the union’s complaint than a public official not paying due deference to organized labor. This is not even just an outsider shaking up the status quo.

The union’s 66-page statement of facts painstakingly documents deteriorating working conditions in an office run by a public official who is obsessively pursuing an old vendetta.

For years, Washam had accused former Assessor-Treasurer Ken Madsen of failing to conduct physical inspections of properties. Come to find out, Washam was right.

But nailing his old political foe was apparently not enough vindication. Judging from the union’s claims and a county investigation, Washam is now seeking to avenge Madsen’s dereliction by going after the people who worked for him.

His primary target appears to be Sally Barnes, one of the office’s former top managers. A independent investigator recently found that Washam retaliated against her for filing a grievance against him, despite being specifically warned that retaliation is prohibited.

That’s coming from a man who accused his predecessor of showing a blatant disregard for the law.

The union’s complaint points to a multitude of problems:

• Washam frequently accuses appraisers of being accomplices to illegal activities, saying they should have blown the whistle on Madsen. Yet Washam objects to the same staff lodging complaints about his own behavior, taunting them with claims that the county can’t touch him.

• Washam continues on his tear about the missed property inspections and what effect they may have had on county assessments, yet frequently undermines the ability of the appraisal staff to catch up. The union alleges that he’s moved employees into positions for which they are not qualified and then denied their requests for training.

• As if that were not demoralizing enough, staff also contend that Washam’s erratic behavior has turned the office into an “armed camp” where employees “are expected to stay in their cubicles and not speak to anyone unless it is break time.”

• Washam allegedly can come unhinged at an employee for little more than a poor word choice. A supervisor got an earful – and a letter of reprimand and demotion – for calling taxpayers who routinely challenge their assessments “perennial appellants.” Apparently, all those times Washam’s been called a perennial candidate got to him.

• He requires staff to schedule a meeting if they want to talk with one another, according to the union. Managers are to send a meeting notice to Washam’s assistant and meet only in the conference room that’s within sight and earshot of Washam’s office. Employees must then turn in meeting minutes.

Washam’s more than a difficult or odd boss. If even half of what employees allege is true, he is creating a hostile work environment that is becoming a huge liability for the county.

That is not simply a union concern; it is the public’s as well. Taxpayers could end up paying, literally, for Washam’s mismanagement of his office.

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