Legal trouble

As city attorney, Mark Sidran faced a staff revolt. How did he handle it?

SEATTLE CITY Attorney Mark Sidran says he will be a strong, decisive leader if we elect him mayor. But how has Sidran done at leading and managing the city attorney’s office over the last 11 years? We don’t often get to peer inside the day-to-day operations of the city attorney’s office, with its roughly 170-person staff handling most of Seattle’s legal work. But thanks to a lawsuit by Margaret Boyle, formerly a city lawyer who worked on appeals, there is a large amount of sworn testimony regarding Sidran’s office.

From 1994 to 1999, a variety of disputes within Sidran’s office resulted in a high-profile union drive, disputes over working conditions, firings, and resignations by staff attorneys. The union involved called itself the Seattle Prosecuting Attorneys Association (SPAA). While relegated to a footnote in most campaign stories, the battle between Sidran and the SPAA has continued to have repercussions for the city. Last year, for instance, key union organizer Margaret Boyle received $126,000 from the city to settle the claim that Sidran had fired her illegally in 1997.

Now, as in 1997, Sidran prefers to view the SPAA situation as a minor-league union/management dispute. In reality, the battle between the city attorney and his prosecutors was more of a staff revolt, which cooled off only after many of his criminal division attorneys left for other jobs and a court decision robbed the union of its bargaining power. While Boyle’s federal lawsuit was settled before trial, most of the key players in the dispute (including Sidran) gave lengthy depositions under oath, which were used to create this narrative of events as they unfolded.

THE CITY ATTORNEY’S office is divided into criminal and civil divisions for dealing with the different aspects of Seattle’s legal work. The roots of the SPAA can be traced to late 1994, as Sidran was evaluating the performance of one of his two top lieutenants, Criminal Division Chief Ted Inkley. In a supposedly confidential discussion, Jeanne Innis, a supervisor in the criminal division who worked under Inkley, complained to Sidran that Inkley would bypass her to make assignments to the lone male attorney on her staff and would often ask the same man to review the work of his female coworkers. As a result, she told Sidran, female attorneys had expressed concerns over Inkley’s apparent sexism.

“[Sidran’s response] was to remind me ‘life is too short to work in a job that makes you unhappy’ and to say he hoped I could work through my problem with Ted,” Innis later recalled. Sidran later informed her that he had decided her concerns about Inkley were without merit. Although he later testified that he reached this conclusion after interviewing several female staffers, Innis doesn’t recall getting any such explanation. She says Sidran simply told her, “Ted isn’t going anywhere” and that he “could not have people in management that felt the way that I did.” Despite his earlier promise of confidentiality, he also passed her concerns on to Inkley.

After leaving a tense meeting with Inkley in tears, Innis was shocked to hear from a male supervisor that he had expressed similar concerns to Sidran about Inkley. (The city attorney doesn’t recall that discussion but allows that it could have happened.) Six months later, Innis resigned.

Around the same time (mid-1995), a pregnant female attorney in the criminal division was informed by her bosses that she couldn’t use flex time for her doctors’ appointments. When she objected, supervisors criticized her performance. Her co-workers responded with a petition disputing their criticisms. The dispute ended in the attorney being placed on suspension for the remainder of her pregnancy; she never returned to her job.

Although Inkley later testified that he was unaware of the perception that Innis had been forced out of the office, Sidran and his supervisors did realize that the staff was in an uproar about the discipline given the pregnant attorney. In an attempt to clear the air, Sidran scheduled meetings with the various lawyer groups.

After addressing his appellate staff, Sidran asked for questions. No one spoke. “If you’re such a bunch of happy campers, then I guess we don’t have any problems in this office, is that right?” said Sidran. No one responded. The city attorney continued, “Life is too short to work in an office where you’re not happy.”

A female attorney reminded Sidran that the last attorney he’d said that to no longer worked for the city, which might explain people’s reluctance to say anything. Sidran told his audience that any comments would be kept confidential. This set off Boyle, who reminded Sidran that he’d made (and broken) a similar promise to Innis. Boyle and her boss then squared off in a heated argument. Inkley later testified that “under normal circumstances, what she said would be out of line, but we’re in a meeting where we asked for it.” A co-worker of Boyle’s had a more vivid impression: She recalls thinking, “This is the end of Margaret’s job.”

THAT ARGUMENT proved the genesis of the Seattle Prosecuting Attorneys Association. After consulting with an outside labor attorney, Jim Cline, Boyle and three other female colleagues set up an organizing meeting with the other criminal division attorneys. They touted unionization as a way of obtaining greater job protection, including a just-cause provision that would allow employees to appeal firings to an arbitrator. The SPAA’s petition for certification was filed with the state in September 1995; the prosecutors voted to accept the new union as their bargaining agent in early November.

Management didn’t like it. On January 9, 1996, as he was preparing Boyle’s performance evaluation, Inkley wrote to another supervisor that “people did not have the option of working against us or the organization in a destructive way,” and he singled out Boyle as a problem employee. In April, Boyle received her evaluation. After five years of excellent ratings, she was shocked to find that her overall performance during 1995 had been rated “improvement needed,” with the same mark in seven individual areas. She also received an “unsatisfactory” rating in one area: “Responsiveness and acceptance of office policies and supervisor’s directions.”

Boyle’s written response to the negative review began with an acknowledgement of her role in the union and the statement that she thought her poor marks stemmed from management’s “improper motives.” She continued to be active in the union, however, and was elected vice president of SPAA in December 1996. During this period, negotiations were heating up between Sidran and the union. The city attorney refused to include a just-cause provision in the contract, citing language in the city’s charter identifying law department attorneys as “at-will” employees, who serve at his discretion.

In February 1997, Boyle received her evaluation for the previous year. While most of 1995’s black marks were removed, she was downgraded for a technical dispute. Based on this technical point, Boyle was disciplined by being transferred out of the appellate unit of the criminal division. Boyle hired an attorney and made a personal appeal to Sidran to reverse the transfer. He didn’t respond.

BY MAY 1997, negotiations between the union and Sidran were at a standstill. However, the city attorney was running for re-election, although he never drew any opposition in his bid for a third term. Union officials decided to take their case to the public. The union was also filing unfair labor practice complaints against Sidran.

On May 28, the union sent a five-page letter to the mayor and council members outlining the events of the previous two years, an event that was covered in The Seattle Times. Sidran later called the charges “malicious and slanderous and libelous and unfair.” Two weeks later, the state Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) ruled in union members’ favor on an unfair labor practice complaint against Inkley for threatening retaliatory action against union members.

Boyle was still drawing memos from her supervisor for minor transgressions: being tardy to a meeting, an error in paperwork, using a couple hours of vacation time without prior permission. The SPAA flap was drawing more press attention. Sidran wrote an all-staff memo decrying press accounts as containing attacks on himself and Inkley that were “bitter, spiteful, and disrespectful character assassination.” Boyle was fired two weeks later.

Inkley says Boyle’s dismissal had nothing to do with her union activities but was actually due to “her failure, over a number of years, to be able to follow directions or accept minimal supervision or to take any responsibility for her actions.” He acknowledges that she received several positive annual evaluations earlier in her law department career but says her employment also included documentation of continuing concerns over her tardiness and resistance to supervisor directions.

Inkley acknowledges that some law department attorneys may have had the perception that he treated female attorneys differently than their male counterparts. But he notes that no equal opportunity or civil rights complaints were ever filed against himself or the department, and that Boyle’s attorneys eventually dropped her gender discrimination claims from the suit.

He adds that settling Boyle’s case, although frustrating to him, was a good deal for city taxpayers. “Would I rather have had complete vindication? Sure,” he says. “Yet the settlement terms were so good that if we’d gone to trial and won, we’d have probably invested that much in attorneys’ fees.”

The union pursued unfair labor practice complaints over the Boyle firing and other issues, although an appeals court later ruled that prosecuting attorneys’ unions weren’t under the jurisdiction of the Public Employee Relations Commission (the state agency that rules on labor complaints). Without the protection of possible state intervention, interest in the SPAA waned, and currently the union is dormant. Prosecuting attorneys who are fired by the Seattle city attorney still have no appeal rights. Inkley resigned as criminal division chief in 1998 but is still employed by the law department.

And Sidran? The daily newspapers are swooning over his plainspoken nature, his acerbic quips, his decisiveness. Says Boyle, “It’s easy to be decisive when the only opinion you care about is your own.”

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