The Gristle

Court in Court

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

COURT IN COURT: A no-win scenario is shaping up in the entangled fiefdoms of Bellingham City Hall and Bellingham Municipal Court. In the last moments of their executive session this week, City Council took steps that could dissolve the Court.

Despite an injunction issued in Skagit County Superior Court limiting the mayor’s office from investigating alleged labor law violations and a toxic work environment at the court, the administration published its summary of the investigation that found evidence supporting those claims. The preliminary investigation was largely complete at the time of the June 4 injunction, and contains statements from voluntary interviews with court employees who had filed their complaint to the city’s personnel office through their union representatives. The investigation does not include interviews with court officers or management personnel in dispute of those claims.

In late May, presiding Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev filed a lawsuit against Mayor Seth Fleetwood and the City of Bellingham, declaring the city’s investigation into court working conditions violated the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches of government. Moreover, legal counsel for Judge Lev additionally claim she could not participate with the city’s investigation under the codes of conduct that govern the court. Skagit County Superior Court agreed Lev had met the burden to limit the city’s actions.

While incomplete, the city’s preliminary investigation does find “the culture and climate of the workplace at the Municipal Court… to be generally negative”—a toxic admixture of intimidation and bullying, and a “culture and suspicion by management of employees,” the summary noted. The investigation and summary were produced by Sarah Hale, an outside independent fact-finder hired by the city in accordance with the city’s procedure for responding to employee complaints.

“Compelling evidence also supports the allegation that employees have been subjected to workplace surveillance,” Hale found. “This includes physically following employees in and around the Courthouse,” and some evidence that employees were covertly surveilled by video cameras.

“After the commencement of this investigation, I find some employees were subject to retaliation by court management. The retaliation included increased surveillance as well as derogatory comments,” Hale reported.

“The pressure and stress of those senior to me has become evidently heightened as a result of this investigation, and those in a superior role continue to conspire and make their best efforts to carry on with a façade,” one court employee confessed to Hale in an email in May. “It’s truly saddening to witness all of this, along with suddenly becoming newly affected by the malignancy that’s looming.”

The report is incomplete and does not include a more comprehensive review of complaints or interviews with court officers or management personnel, who may dispute the claims. Judge Lev had ordered those officers and managers not to participate with the investigation, which she viewed as improper.

The mayor’s office maintains that Municipal Court has traditionally relied on the city’s human resources department to handle some personnel matters, and employees in the Municipal Court all are subject to city employment policies and procedures.

“We have a fundamental disagreement with Judge Lev as it relates to who is responsible for the well-being of city employees, including those who work at the Municipal Court,” Fleetwood said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to investigate workplace complaints, to hold accountable those who are responsible for misconduct, and to ensure collective bargaining agreements are upheld and relevant state law and city policies are followed. For these reasons, we will continue to seek recourse through the courts.”

Yet it seems all but certain City Hall will not prevail in court and will lose their case on procedural grounds.

In a statement to media, Lev’s legal counsel said, “The resulting report reflects multiple factual inaccuracies and presents mostly the recitation of various allegations as opposed to substantiated findings, demonstrates repeated misunderstandings of various labor and employment matters, and further disparages Lev for her failure to participate, despite the reality that doing so is counter to existing law.

“The continued disparagement of Lev by the city and its agents is inconsistent with the inarguable fact that the mayor’s commission of such an investigation of the court is in violation of well-established separation of powers principles.”

“This issue is not ambiguous,” the state’s District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association asserted in a letter. “While we agree that complaints about workplace conditions by employees should be treated seriously and dealt with appropriately, the executive branch’s human resources department has no authority to direct the cooperation of any employee into their investigation, and does not have the authority to hire or fire court employees.”

The appropriate route with any complaints regarding working conditions would have been to bring them to Lev herself, and then notify the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, Judge Rebecca Robertson, co-chair of the DMCJA, explained in a statement to the Bellingham Herald.

Roberston said Lev was not notified of the complaints, that the union never came to her with them and Fleetwood didn’t tell her what the complaints were regarding. Robertson said Lev has since contacted the commission, which will conduct an independent investigation.

“For the executive branch to launch an investigation into a separate branch of government is an infringement on the separation of powers,” Robertson said.

“We have not heard of a situation as egregious as this before. There are other issues about judicial independence and executive overreach that we’ve handled before, but this is incredibly unusual,” Robertson said. “There is a proper way to go about the investigation in respect to the separation of powers.”

An additional hearing on the injunction is scheduled later this month in Skagit County Superior Court. The court will consider a motion by the counsel representing Lev to disqualify the legal team representing Fleetwood and COB for an “unethical conflict of interest”—that’s the City Attorney’s office, who also serve as prosecutors for Municipal Court. In anticipation of this, City Council—the legislative branch of city government—this week authorized outside counsel in the event City Attorneys are dismissed; and they took a preliminary vote that could end in the dissolution of the court.

It’s about to get ugly, and interesting.

Past Columns
Pandemic Pandemonium

November 24, 2021

Preexisting Conditions

November 10, 2021

Consensus from the Census

September 29, 2021

An Expanding Agenda

September 15, 2021

Primary to the Left

August 18, 2021

‘Free Dirt’

July 21, 2021

Roll On Columbia

July 7, 2021

Crisis In Court

June 9, 2021

A Community of Color

May 26, 2021

Grand Slam

May 12, 2021

Carbon Pricing Reality

April 28, 2021

Third Time’s A Charm

April 14, 2021

Salmon Need Water

March 31, 2021

Mid-Point

March 17, 2021

Carbon Pricing

March 3, 2021

‘Stop The Steal’

February 17, 2021

Camp 210

February 3, 2021

A capricious flower

January 20, 2021

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8:00pm

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