The Sound Transit Board on Thursday raised concerns over complaints that CEO Peter Rogoff berated employees, made racially insensitive remarks, and looked woman employees "up and down." Most of the complaints, outlined in a human resources memo and a review by an outside lawyer, happened in early 2016.
The majority of the board voted to approve a motion directing Rogoff to undertake a “leadership development plan” to improve his “listening, self-awareness, and relationship building.” For the next six months, three board members will review Rogoff’s progress on that plan. As part of an annual evaluation, the board did not give Rogoff a merit-based raise of up to $31,290.
Board members voted 11-2 in favor of the plan. Five members were absent. The two board members who voted against the motion said it doesn't go far enough.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who sits on the board, said facts gathered by the outside attorney "demonstrate that Sound Transit is not felt to be a safe workplace for all employees, that they do not feel that they can act without repercussions, and that there are many who feel that their work is not valued." She added, "I do not believe that these issues have been resolved as completely as indicated by counsel."
In voting against the motion, Durkan said the leadership plan was "not the resolution." Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson also voted no. He said that without seeing the specifics of the plan, "I don't feel confident today that I have a really good understanding about how we're going to continue to evaluate the CEO."
A human resources memo lists concerns about Rogoff. The memo describes a high-pressure and profane work environment. It includes allegations that Rogoff looked women employees "up and down," yelled at an employee over the phone from 11 pm to 1 am, kicked and shoved a chair during an outburst, expected employees to be available for a meeting unless "they are on life support," said "people around here are just so fucking lazy," said some board members “are just a bunch of small town mayors with nothing to do," and repeatedly used profanity to employees. According to the memo, when Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom called in January 2016 to ask about Rogoff's salary, "Peter's response was 'tell him to go fuck himself.'"
In a report delivered to the board on February 28, attorney Steven Winterbauer outlined several specific complaints about Rogoff.
During a Black History Month luncheon in 2016, Rogoff “reportedly made comments condescending toward persons of color insofar as he reportedly stated or implied that African Americans require more mentoring and assistance than their counterparts to succeed in a professional setting,” the report reads. According to the report, Rogoff believes employees misinterpreted his comments or took them out of context.
The report also details concerns about Rogoff’s repeated treatment of women.
According to the report, Rogoff allegedly said to a woman employee in September, “Honey, that aint never gonna happen” in a “tone and manner that were abrupt, disrespectful and dismissive.”
“The employee felt the CEO’s actions, particularly his use of the term ‘honey,’ disregarded the depth and breadth of her experience and diminished her role, all in the context of a meeting that included other agency personnel,” the report says. The employee complained to her manager and to human resources. Rogoff apologized, according to the report.
In February 2016, the former CEO of Sound Transit contacted Rogoff about concerns about how he “looked at certain female employees,” according to the report. Human resources staff spoke to Rogoff about these concerns. In some cases, Rogoff denied the behavior or "made adjustments." But more often, HR spoke to Rogoff "in generalities without identifying specific reported behaviors," the report says. That "denied everyone the opportunity for immediate resolution and allowed recollections to fade and relations to worsen."
The report also says Rogoff’s management “has been described variously as East Coast, dictatorial, and unnecessarily confrontational.” Winterbauer interviewed 24 people, some of whom had previously voiced concerns about Rogoff. (Sound Transit currently has more than 800 employees.) Winterbauer found the agency fulfilled its legal obligations to respond to the complaints. Concerns about Rogoff have “lessened, but nevertheless persist,” he wrote.
In a statement, Rogoff acknowledged using profanity and being "overly intense in articulating my expectations for performance" during his early months on the job. He denied other allegations.
Rogoff made a distinction between the way he managed employees when he started at Sound Transit in early 2016 and the way he manages the agency now. “My workplace demeanor in early 2016 was the wrong approach,” Rogoff said. “I take full responsibility for it.”
Rogoff said he has worked to improve his management style. Rogoff said some of the specific allegations against him happened due to “the adjustment period I was going through when I first arrived at the agency.” In other allegations “I believe to be misquoted, misunderstood, mischaracterized or false," he said.
“I don’t yell at people," Rogoff said. "I don’t disparage small city mayors and I don’t shove furniture to make a point. I certainly respect the rights of the public and press to know the details of my salary. My salary has been a matter of public record in each of the last 31 years of my career. I was shocked to read some of the characterizations on this list just as you must have been when it surfaced.”
Rogoff’s statement does not address his alleged comments about race or toward women. While Rogoff will not receive a merit-based raise this year, he did receive a 5 percent raise on January 1 that was already written into his contract. Rogoff now makes $328,545 a year.
Several board members defended Rogoff Thursday. Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling said Rogoff has “taken corrective action and I admire that.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine largely wrote off the concerns as a matter of style. Constantine said he first met Rogoff when Rogoff worked with the Federal Transit Administration. Rogoff was "very direct, bracingly direct, direct in a way that offended my Northwest sensibilities, but he was also very factual and correct," Constantine said.
"When [Rogoff] applied to become the CEO of Sound Transit," Constantine continued, "I cautioned him that his directness was going to run up against a very different way of interacting to which we're accustomed here in the Pacific Northwest and that he was going to have to modify his manner and understand the local culture if he was going to be successful."
Constantine said Rogoff "has made significant progress in becoming a better manager of people whose primary point of reference is the Northwest way of doing things, but clearly there is a lot more progress to be made."