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News / Northwest

Inslee seeks ouster of regulatory leader amid tumult at agency

David Danner, chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, had his pay cut and the governor wants him to resign. Danner says he intends to finish his term and wants his full salary restored.

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Published: March 14, 2024, 8:55am

The chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission is under fire over the use of a racial slur and his passive response to employee allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the regulatory agency.

Gov. Jay Inslee slashed the pay of Commissioner David Danner in late December, citing the commissioner’s admitted use of the N-word during an April 2022 lunch attended by the agency’s former executive director. He was recounting how a white Montana commissioner used it while speaking with Black commissioners at a social event at a national conference.

The governor is also pushing Danner to resign after an independent investigation concluded the chairman violated an agency policy to actively promote equity, diversity and inclusion.

It also found he failed “to ensure that employees were treated respectfully and free from harassment” by not addressing the conflicts between workers underlying the barrage of allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior.

Following the report’s release, Danner was asked to step down and offered compensation in exchange for a release of any legal claims.

“Mr. Danner hereby rejects the offer and request,” his attorneys wrote to state lawyers on Feb. 6. They also warned a lawsuit would be filed “to compel the reinstatement of Mr. Danner’s salary if the Governor’s Office does not take this step on its own very soon.”

As of Wednesday, the salary cut, which totaled about $30,000 annually, had not been restored.

Danner, who was the UTC executive two decades ago, was appointed chair by Inslee in February 2013 and reappointed in December 2018. His current term expires Dec. 31.

In a phone interview, he declined to answer questions about the situation saying only that he intends to finish his term.

Danner did provide the governor a written response to the report on Feb. 6 in which he strongly disagreed that he violated any agency policies.

Commissioner Ann Rendahl, who also used the N-word in telling the same story in front of different employees, did not have her pay cut nor has she been asked to resign. She referred questions to the governor’s office.

Officials familiar with the situation said Rendahl has taken responsibility for her actions and is engaged with the governor’s office on the path forward.

A long three years

The tensions involving Danner are the latest twist in a nearly three-year saga at the Utilities and Transportation Commission, or UTC, which regulates private, investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities and transportation companies in Washington.

In recent months, key employees involved in the episode have moved on and the agency has brought on new leadership including a new executive director, human resources director and the commission’s first equity director.

The tumult began shortly after the promotion of Amanda Maxwell, a longtime agency employee, to executive director in the fall of 2021. Within months, front-line workers and former employees started filing anonymous complaints about her leadership and that of her administrative team.

Those high-ranking women employees, who have all since left the agency, said they were targeted because of their gender and race. They assert the complaints, filed over a period of months in 2021 and 2022, were intended to harass and intimidate them out of their positions.

They accused Danner and Rendahl of failing to take action, resulting in a hostile work environment, and of undertaking their own discriminatory behavior towards them as well.

An assessment of the workplace culture prepared in Spring 2023 for the Office of Financial Management painted a dismal picture in which many workers did not trust or feel supported by agency leaders or commissioners.

At the same time, those in charge felt under attack by some of their staff, and not backed by commissioners.

Inslee got involved after UTC senior leaders, including Maxwell, Anna Gill, then director of communications and consumer protection; Melissa Cheesman, then assistant director for policy, and Rayne Pearson, then director of the agency’s administrative law division, filed complaints with the Office of Financial Management.

They alleged the failure of Danner and Rendahl to respond to anonymous complaints targeting the senior leaders “created a hostile work environment.” They also contended the commissioners exhibited hostile behavior toward employees who advocated for equity in the workplace.

One complainant said Danner and Rendahl “actively fostered an environment that allows this behavior to thrive unchecked” by not standing up for those “on the receiving end of this harassment,” according to documents released by the governor’s office.

The governor hired Sebris Busto James, a labor and employment law firm, to investigate. Tina Aiken of the firm submitted a 19-page report Dec. 27, 2023 to Kelly Wicker, Inslee’s deputy chief of staff, and Margaret McLean, an assistant attorney general.

By then, Inslee had already taken action against Danner.

A week earlier, on Dec. 20, Jamila Thomas, then the governor’s chief of staff, told Danner his annual salary would be reduced to $145,176 from $174,000, because he used the N-word in the workplace and “did not think it was an issue at the time because no one appeared offended.”

Danner Salary Reduction 2023

Thomas warned of more discipline when the investigation was done and scolded Danner for not confronting the concerns.

“Your lack of awareness for the gravity of your behavior as well as your lack of sophistication in proactively addressing any of the leadership concerns that have been brought to you over the last nine months is a cause for legitimate concern,” she wrote in a Dec. 20 letter.

“Throughout this process you have remained passive in your role as a leader, allowing issues to continue to percolate until it created a poor work environment resulting in the complete turnover of your leadership team and significant turnover of commission staff,” she wrote.

While Inslee appointed Danner, he cannot simply fire him. State law says commissioners can be removed “for inefficiency, malfeasance or misfeasance” through a quasi-judicial process. The governor must submit written charges to the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, who would then convene a special three-judge panel to adjudicate the matter.

Danner’s attorneys say there are no grounds to remove Danner. And they contend the pay cut is unconstitutional, hence the threat of legal action if the full salary is not reinstated.

What the report found

Aiken reviewed 992 pages of documentation and interviewed 13 people, including commissioners, Sept. 25 and Dec. 8, 2023, according to the report. She spoke with Rendahl on Nov. 16 and 19, and Danner on Nov. 20 and 21.

She found Danner and Rendahl each violated three policies. First, they did not comply with the agency’s policy to prevent discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment. Second, the two commissioners violated the UTC equity policy by taking a “passive approach” to advance it.

The third violation had to do with both commissioners using a racial slur.

Each spoke the N-word in the course of retelling an incident at a national conference of utility commissioners in Washington, D.C. where they said a Montana commissioner used the N-word at a social event, the report found.

“Ms. Rendahl says she used the racial slur when she told the story because it was the word that was actually said and because it had the same shock value as what she had experienced when the Montana commissioner used it,” the report reads.

Rendahl said it in the presence of agency employees at a book club meeting to discuss “White Fragility” which is a sociologist examination of racial sensitivities. Danner denies saying it at that book club meeting but confirmed saying it at a lunch meeting attended by Maxwell and two others.

In his February letter, Danner said he deeply regrets using the N-word. He noted the others at the lunch were a Black author and his partner. In December, after learning Maxwell complained about his action, Danner said he reached out to apologize to the writer and his spouse and got an email back saying neither of them was offended as they understood the context.

The investigator found a lack of evidence to substantiate several other allegations including that the two commissioners gave white male employees preferential treatment or retaliated against senior leaders when they announced their plan to depart the agency last summer.

See you in court

On Tuesday, six current and former employees, including the quartet who filed complaints, issued a seven-page statement through their attorney.

In it, they said the report “generally glossed over the depth, severity, and length of time during which these four Complainants had to endure the harassment and discrimination that went unaddressed for years by UTC Commissioners and upper management.”

Specifically, the former agency executives said key documents and other examples of gender-based discrimination were left out of the report. And witnesses they identified “who would have corroborated our testimony were not interviewed,” they said.

“We tried to work with them to resolve the ongoing harassment and discrimination we endured,” they said. “They did nothing to help us as month after month of our complaints turned into years. All four of us were left with no other choice but to hire an attorney and file our respective pending lawsuits against the UTC.”

UTC 2023 Investigation Report

The December 2023 report prepared by the law firm Sebris Busto James after investigating workplace complaints at the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Stay informed on what is happening in Clark County, WA and beyond for only

Dave Danner Response

UTC Chair David Danner’s response to the investigation report and Gov. Jay Inslee’s actions to reduce his pay and push him from his position.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.