Inslee’s effort to cut pay, oust regulatory leader falters

The entrance to the UTC’s offices. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Gov. Jay Inslee can’t get the embattled chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to resign.

Nor, apparently, can he reduce the salary or directly discipline David Danner for his use of a racial slur and purportedly tepid response to employee allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the regulatory agency.

But the governor’s efforts to do those things could wind up costing state taxpayers, it appears.

Danner filed a tort claim May 10 seeking an unspecified amount of damages for “defamation and false light” for actions aimed at ousting or punishing him taken by Inslee’s top advisors since December. Such claims are a precursor to a lawsuit.

“For the governor to falsely and publicly suggest I’ve engaged in racism and harassment is devastating and it has taken a tremendous toll on my health and my state of mind,” Danner said. “I feel my reputation has taken a huge hit.”

An Inslee spokesperson called the current situation “unfortunate and deeply disappointing.”

“Given the pending tort claim, we would refer you to the comments in the records you’ve been provided,” said Press Secretary Mike Faulk. “Our office’s communications on this matter have been abundantly clear, and our position has not changed.”

Out of bounds

Tensions involving Danner are a product of a yearslong saga at the Utilities and Transportation Commission, or UTC, which regulates private, investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities and transportation companies in Washington.

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

Eventually, Maxwell and other executive staff moved on and the agency brought on new leadership. Inslee got involved after several former leaders, including Maxwell, filed complaints with the Office of Financial Management alleging the failure of commissioners to respond to anonymous complaints targeting them, which they said “created a hostile work environment.”

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

David Danner, chair of the Utilities and Transportation Commission. (Photo courtesy Washington UTC)

Danner’s conflict with Inslee heated up in December when the governor slashed his annual salary by $30,000, citing the commissioner’s admitted use of the N-word during an April 2022 lunch attended by the agency’s former executive director. Danner was recounting how a white Montana commissioner used it while speaking with Black commissioners at a social event at a national conference.

The pay cut came days before the release of the investigation that concluded the chairman failed to follow agency policies to actively promote equity, diversity and inclusion, and to ensure a workplace free of harassment by not addressing conflicts between workers underlying the barrage of allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior.

Danner called the pay cut unconstitutional. On April 4, Joby Shimomura, Inslee’s chief of staff, informed Danner that he would be reinstated to his annual salary of $174,732 “effective immediately.” He also received back pay, though Danner said he’s owed interest on those dollars.

“This action reflects an updated understanding of our office’s lawful authority to reduce your

salary under these circumstances and should not be construed as a revocation of the deep concerns that formed the basis for taking this action,” she wrote in a letter to Danner obtained through a public records request.

Meanwhile, Wicker, the deputy chief of staff, sent Danner a two-page “Memorandum of expectations” on March 29 as a follow-up to the investigation. The Standard obtained a copy through a public records request.

In it, Wicker makes “findings” that “a preponderance of the evidence” found his use of the N-word and “a passive approach” on equity were not in line with agency policy. She concluded there was not “sufficient evidence” to support the report’s conclusion that he failed to protect workers from harassment.

Wicker outlines several remedial measures Danner should undertake, including training on workplace behavior and developing a diversity, equity and inclusion action plan for the agency.

“Moving forward it is important you take all necessary steps to correct this workplace behavior and avoid similar incidents in the future,” she wrote.

Days later, Danner responded by rejecting Wicker’s directives, telling her the commission is an independent agency.

It appears that you are attempting to exercise authority that you do not have,” he wrote in an April 8 letter obtained by The Standard. “It is not the role of the Governor’s staff to assess, let alone make findings, whether I have been ‘passive’ with regard to DEI or that my actions have violated internal UTC policies.”

Here to stay?

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.

Danner said he was a member of Inslee’s executive cabinet but had not been invited to a cabinet meeting in months. And his name and image are no longer on the governor’s website.

Faulk said Friday that which agencies are represented in the cabinet evolves and the UTC post is not currently part of it.

“Changes do not reflect or change the positive working relationships we have with the staff at the UTC,” he said.

State law prevents Inslee from firing Danner. Rather, it 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 said the tension is affecting him personally but not professionally.

“I’ve been working very hard to keep my issues with the governor’s office separate from work with the commission,” he said. “I’m just doing my job until the end of my term.”

by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

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: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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