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Dec. 5, 2021

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Workplace complaints surfaced before resignation of Washington Parks director, records show


OLYMPIA — Washington State Parks Director Peter Mayer resigned earlier this month after at least a dozen agency employees complained about his workplace conduct, such as allegedly using foul language and belittling others, public records show.

Additionally, an anonymous complaint suggested Mayer pressured staff to award a contract to someone he knew, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times through public-disclosure requests.

The documents obtained by The Times shed new light on Mayer’s surprise resignation, which the parks department announced late on Oct. 6 as being in the “best interest of his family.” While it isn’t clear whether a severance agreement was reached, an email from the chairman of the State Parks and Recreation Commission offered Mayer “home assignment” with his full salary through the end of the year.

Mayer was appointed in March.

In an email provided Friday through a spokesperson, Mayer apologized for any offensive language. But, he said, “I categorically deny making derogatory or hostile statements, innuendos about loyalty or marginalized comments about others.”

Responding to the complaint about the contract award, which has since been canceled, Mayer wrote that while he was “familiar with a particular consultant who was prequalified to engage in work,” the “procurement of all consultants was obtained consistent with agency and state rules and policies.”

It isn’t clear in the documents The Times obtained whether parks commissioners reviewed the contract — a $29,000 award to a Maine-based consultant — cited in the anonymous complaint.

The day Mayer resigned, State Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Michael Latimer emailed him with a proposal: The agency would keep him on home assignment with full salary — Mayer made $165,840 a year — and benefits through Jan. 3, and provide a neutral reference for future employment inquiries, according to the email. Mayer, meanwhile, would sign an agreement releasing all claims against the agency and the commission.

With media inquiring about the “current situation,” Latimer wrote, “I believe a simple resignation would afford you a clean exit.”

“I am confident that this proposal along with your resignation would allow me to gain approval by the commission to offer you these terms,” Latimer added.

Latimer, through a spokesperson, has declined multiple requests for interviews since Mayer’s resignation and didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Other commissioners have responded to inquiries, saying it would be inappropriate to comment.

“The agency director is not an elected official position. We cannot provide any additional details regarding ongoing personnel matters,” parks spokesperson Amanda McCarthy wrote in an email. She confirmed Tuesday that Mayer is still being paid by the agency.

Washington State Parks is overseen by a commission of volunteers appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Those volunteers help give direction to an agency of 1,000 employees.

The refusal by the agency and commissioners to answer questions about Mayer’s resignation raises questions about how taxpayer dollars are being used and how residents can evaluate their public servants, according to the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“They are basically unaccountable to the public,” Toby Nixon, president emeritus of the group, wrote in an email. “They never have to stand for election by voters and directly justify their actions.”

Multiple complaints

Rarely does the agency tending Washington’s 124 state parks — from coastal campgrounds to Deception Pass and Palouse Falls — spur much intrigue.

But after 11 p.m. on Oct. 6, the department announced Mayer’s resignation.

The move came after the third of three special meetings by the Parks and Recreation Commission that included closed-door sessions to “evaluate complaints brought against a public officer or employee.”

McCarthy at the time wouldn’t say whether Mayer was the target of complaints, even as the agency scrubbed his biography and photo from its website and announced an interim director.

Mayer had previously been deputy executive director of Metro Parks Tacoma. His work before that included deputy director at Snohomish Health District and parks and recreation director for the city of Mercer Island.

In a Sept. 22 email — the day of the first special meeting — Latimer wrote that Assistant Director Mike Sternback had said a month earlier that “things weren’t going that well with Pete” among agency leadership “and other staff were having difficulty with Pete’s leadership style, abusive and bullying behavior.”

By the second special meeting on Oct. 4, Sternback announced he would step down to a lower-level position at the agency.

One complaint — sent by six regional managers — accused Mayer of “unprofessional and disrespectful comments and behavior.” They contended Mayer violated agency policies about respectful work environment, harassment and discrimination.

South East Region Manager Scott Griffith wrote in an email that Mayer had used “the Lord’s Name” in vain before the leader of the park ranger honor guard, and in small-group conversations referred to some of the executive leadership team as “F-ups” and their departments as “f-ed up.”

Griffith declined to comment. Others who complained about Mayer, including two additional regional managers and Sternback, didn’t respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

Mayer wrote that he wasn’t invited to the special committee meetings, wasn’t allowed to address the commission and didn’t know the nature of the complaints before his resignation.

“Although I do not recall making any of these specific statements, I may have used less than professional language or sarcasm in a way that, especially when taken out of context, would be offensive,” Mayer wrote. “I realize now that some of my word choices were unprofessional, too casual and flippant, and clearly turned some people off. I truly apologize for that and did not intend to offend anyone.”

Mayer suggested others’ frustration may have stemmed from the fact that some managers had applied for the position he held, and that the department hadn’t hired a director from outside the agency in decades.

“Once I was made aware of the management complaints lodged against me by some senior managers, and even though I was not made aware of the content of the complaints, I determined it was unlikely that I was going to be an effective manager within the agency going forward and chose to resign,” he wrote.

Jeremy Jalali, retired president of Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1466, defended Mayer in a statement.

“The interactions I am aware of were well received and the feedback I heard from the represented workforce about Director Mayer was very positive,” wrote Jalali, who described himself as a park ranger of 25 years who is leaving soon for another job. “They appreciated his dedication to parks, his candor, and his willingness to tackle tough issues.”

Questions over contract

The anonymous complaint about a contract was sent to Latimer from a private individual’s email address. The complaint suggested Mayer didn’t follow “proper process,” and pointed to a contract with BerryDunn, a Maine-based management and accounting consulting firm.

Mayer “identified the consultant he wanted to work with from his past relationship with them,” the email said, and “pressured staff that he wanted the process to lead to his pick coming out on top in a ‘competitive’ process.”

“Staff have pushed back on this as they work with full integrity within the parameter of law and policy,” the complainant said. “The risk to the reputation of this agency is significant.”

Mayer denied that allegation, saying “I was not involved in the selection nor pressured staff to select BerryDunn” and that procurement was overseen independently by other workers.

Latimer sought details of contracts that might have to be reviewed given the complaints, according to another email sent the day Mayer resigned. A parks worker that day emailed Latimer details of five contracts, including the one with BerryDunn, which was authorized for about $29,000.

Latimer forwarded that list to two assistant attorneys general and two fellow commissioners, Mark Brown and Diana Perez.

“We may want to encourage/authorize the interim director to cancel some of these contracts,” Latimer wrote.

None of the three commissioners responded to questions about whether the contracts were reviewed or canceled.

The fate of one contract is known.

In an email Tuesday, Colleen Oakley, chief sales and marketing director of BerryDunn, said the company’s “contract was canceled for convenience last week by the agency” and that the company was awarded the contract “through a competitive process in which we had no involvement with developing the scope of work, signed the contract and work never began.”