By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
Corrects lawyer Donna Knifsend's connection with the Platt Irwin Law Firm of Port Angeles. She is a subcontractor of the firm.
PORT ANGELES — A series of Port of Port Angeles reports on a May 16 whistle-blower complaint related to port leases paints a picture of former Executive Director Jeff Robb as an insecure, manipulative administrator.
Port Angeles lawyer Donna Knifsend, a subcontractor of Platt Irwin Law Firm, said that in one interview, Robb was stressed out and possibly unstable and in another interview said he would sue if port commissioners fired him.
“It is a lot of insight into the dirty laundry, if you will, of any organization that is not normally widely shared with the public,” said Commissioner John Calhoun, the commission's senior member and its former president.
The whistle-blower complaint, a June 10 executive summary on the complaint, a June 17 executive summary regarding “conflicts within the organization” and a June 29 supplemental report that includes recommendations and details of interviews were obtained Friday by the Peninsula Daily News under a state Public Records Act request.
Robb resigned as executive director June 24 and was immediately hired by commissioners to the unadvertised, unbudgeted position of environmental affairs director at the same $138,000 salary.
Names were redacted from the reports by Knifsend, who works for the same firm that employs port attorney Dave Neupert.
Knifsend concluded there were no violations of state law, that Robb did not violate the port Master Policy agreement, which governed the responsibilities the board delegated to Robb, and that the whistle-blower complaint was “brought in good faith.”
Knifsend conducted 52 hours of interviews and reviewed 6,000 pages of documents, she said.
She interviewed eight “key individuals” and interviewed Robb for more than seven hours.
The unidentified whistle-blower alleged that Robb was unresponsive to issues regarding port leases “that were not in compliance with bonds or security agreements” and that an assistant property manager should be hired to help address a backlog of work and keep leases in compliance.
The whistle-blower had asserted that Robb refused to hire additional staff and that he was not filling out a form that shows commissioners that bonds were not in compliance.
“I cannot continue to be involved in the lack of required reporting and be complicit in the failure to follow RCWs,” the whistle-blower said.
“I have not had time to address these issues with all of the other tasks I am responsible for.”
Port Director of Business Development Colleen McAleer oversees port leases and contracts and reports on their status to the executive director.
She has filed as a candidate to run against Sequim-area Port Commissioner Paul McHugh in an Aug. 6 primary race that also includes retired program management consultant Del DelaBarre.
McAleer did not return calls for comment last week.
“The filing of intent to run for a commission seat by [redaction] raised concern about the motive of the complaint as well as motives behind [redaction] action of the past few months relating to wanting lease compliance, etc.,” Knifsend said in the June 17 report.
“The motive of bringing the whistle-blower complaint was based on the 'perceived' lack of follow-through by individual commissioners once [redaction] concerns were brought forward.
“In reality, commissioners were looking into the issues and concerns,” Knifsend said.
“This is an area where policies and procedures need to be reviewed, then enforced by [the] commission and all port staff,” she concluded.
Commission President Jim Hallett said Knifsend's review of the complaint grew into a larger review at the request of Neupert.
The whistle-blower complaint “was the tip of the onion, and the layers were peeled back as the [report] proceeded,” Knifsend said in the June 17 report, two days before commissioners reviewed Robb's job performance in executive session.
“The port is dysfunctional on several levels,”she said in the June 29 report.
“All commissioners and senior staff need to restore trust, integrity and transparency.”
Possible solutions include creating an ombudsman program, establishing a confidential hotline and undergoing a review of internal documents, Knifsend said.
Robb did not return repeated calls Friday and Saturday morning for comment on the reports.
Knifsend addressed several concerns expressed by Robb in her June 17 report — two days before commissioners reviewed his job performance.
Robb has said there was a “hostile work environment” against him, she said.
If there is such an environment, “it appears to be the result of his own acts, conduct and interaction (or lack thereof) with staff testifying they are intimidated and hesitant to approach him relating to work matters,” Knifsend said.
Staff interviewed said Robb was “intimidating, controlling and manipulative,” she said.
“The level of knowledge of and skills of selected staff, even ones hired by this executive director, is what has been causing insecurity and stress with the executive director as facts became known during his interview,” she said.
“My initial interview with the executive director showed extreme stress and possible instability on his part,” Knifsend said.
In a second interview, Robb was more calm, she said, and he “stated he was prepared to proceed with a lawsuit if he was terminated.”
Commissioners were asked about the reports in separate interviews.
“It could be a technical ruling that the letter of the law was not violated, but an elected official would look at it and say, 'That may be true, but what about the spirit of the law?'” Hallett said.
“What concerns me most is the hostile work environment that [Knifsend] said was solely the responsibility of the former executive director.”
Said McHugh: “We did not violate state law; Jeff did not violate the Master Policy which governs our relationship with him. That's good.
“The report stands on its own,” he added. “Different individuals view those circumstances through different lenses.”
Said Calhoun: “[Knifsend] is reporting what she was told when she interviewed those employees that were bringing the complaints against Jeff.
“I think a select few viewed the situation as intolerable.”
Calhoun said the port has yet to be billed for Knifsend's review of the whistle-blower complaint.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each document, with redactions by port sources, is accessible as a PDF file beginning with the whistle-blower complaint, and then the June 10, June 17 and June 29 reports: