The Sound Transit Board denied CEO Peter Rogoff a salary bonus following reports from employees alleging he engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior, during a special meeting held Thursday.
Details of the allegations remain murky, but Jenny Durkan, Mayor of Seattle and ST Board member, said the allegations “raised the issue of racial bias and insensitivity.”
After a long executive session, a motion was introduced and approved by the Board requiring Rogoff to complete a “Leadership Development Plan.”
“It will include improving skills in listening, self-awareness and relationship-building inside and outside the organization,” said John Marchione, Vice Chair of ST’s board and Mayor of Redmond.
Not all board members were supportive of the motion. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Councilmember Rob Johnson voted against the proposal.
“I think the facts that we have been briefed on, and the conclusion reached by our council, demonstrate Sound Transit is not felt to be a safe workplace for all employees. They don’t feel they can act without repercussions, and there are many who feel their work is not valued,” Durkan said. “I am also concerned that the statements that were alleged to have been made by the CEO and [his] actions raised the issue of racial bias and insensitivity, as well as other workplace harassment issues.”
Johnson, also a no vote, wanted more information regarding the leadership development plan.
A records request by Crosscut details some of the allegations.
In a statement, Rogoff denied some of the accusations. “As I have mentioned before, some of the assertions on the list reflect the realities of the adjustment period I was going through when I first arrived at the agency. Other entries on this document I believe to be misquoted, misunderstood, mischaracterized or false. I don’t yell at people. I don’t disparage small city mayors and I don’t shove furniture to make a point.”
Marchione, who introduced the motion, began by praising Rogoff for his 2017 accomplishments, including efforts to meet aggressive timelines and increase internal collaboration across the agency’s departments.
He characterized the allegations as “inappropriate language, and actions and demeanor that made employees uncomfortable.”
Marchione said an outside consultant was used to ensure the reports were dealt with and resolved appropriately.
Marchione said weighing Rogoff’s management and accomplishments together, the Board decided not to grant a bonus to Rogoff for 2017. Instead, the Board is ordering Rogoff to complete a leadership development plan, “moving away from relying on a position of power to accomplish agency objectives.” Three Board members will oversee the plan and meet monthly with Rogoff.
“I feel these actions are appropriate given all the data in front of us and, if followed, we will have improved management by the CEO,” Marchione said.
In 2018, Rogoff received a 5% annual inflation increase, bringing his annual salary to $328,545. His contract is set to expire January 31, 2019.
When Rogoff applied for the CEO position, Dow Constantine, King County Executive and ST board member, said he cautioned Rogoff that he was going to have “to modify his manner and understand the local culture if he was going to be successful.”
“I believe that he has made significant progress in becoming a better manager of people whose primary point of reference is the Northwest way of doing things,” Constantine said. “Clearly, there is progress to be made.”
In his statement, Rogoff acknowledged he had important lessons to learn when he began working at Sound Transit.
“My workplace demeanor in early 2016 was the wrong approach. I take full responsibility for it. I apologize to the Board for it today just as I apologized for it during my 2016 performance review,” Rogoff said.
“Just as Sound Transit is an agency that strives for continuous improvement, I too seek to continually improve my performance based on new inputs and challenges. As such, I embrace the Board’s latest direction and will continue to work with staff and Board Members to become an even more effective leader.”
28 Replies to “ST CEO Accused of Inappropriate Workplace Behavior”
While I am sure there are some issues with his “style”, it is often easier to publicly criticize “style” as opposed to criticizing actual performance. I suspect there is some reluctance to openly criticize performance because it is hard to do that without also bringing the performance of the overall organization into question. So the criticism moves to “style” and you get HR monitored (and documented) sensitivity training instead.
I think we will learn more by watching how Lynnwood Link progresses.
But it is hard to follow Joni. She ran a tight ship. She managed well and performed well.
It means a lot to me to walk up and thank Joni when I can.
That’s a cheap shot, Joe. Your comment should be moderated.
Jack, what? Joe likes Joni Earl; big deal. Why does that need to be “moderated”?
I think Jack is reading a meaning into Joe’s comment that Joe did not intend.
I enjoy thanking ALL Sound Transit stars! ALL!
You should sometime go to a Sound Transit Board Meeting early and get the doors. Because when I sortie, I’m so jittery I need the upworthy feelings I get just getting the door for the staff.
Recently I was at a Sound Transit Board Meeting – and gasp – the only things I said were “Go Sound Transit” to the staff. Frankly, it was a load of f-u-n. You should do that sometime.
Lazarus, very glad to have this discussion start with your first paragraph. Pretty much my thinking, but you got up earlier than me, so you get the credit. Damn.
I think your analysis of the situation is spot on.
Where was the board’s response/concern during the 2016 performance review? I guess the euphoria felt from passage of ST3 persuaded them to look the other way. Turn the page to 2017 and the Lynnwood Link budget debacle and now the board is discussing the CEO’s “executive style” during his performance review.
Btw, speaking as a former NYer myself, the whole “East Coast style” explanation is just a cop-out for unprofessional behavior.
Well said, especially the last paragraph. I got a scholarship to Cornell but I hated the combination of “Old New England Family” snobs and abrasive New York sharks enough to transfer back to the Midwest. It was objectively a stupid move, but I think I’ve probably been happier as a result.
Transit Director for Metro Transit in early 1980’s. Man most responsible for the design and beginning operations of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.
Chaired our Joint Union Management Advisory Committee, which got stunning respect from the world’s top engineers because nobody had ever started a regional electric railway with dual power express buses,
Character defining opening statement. “You are advisers to ME. You will give me your best advice. I WILL MAKE THE DECISION.” Should be one-sentence oath of office for every administrator in the world.
From then on, I would’ve sooner taken a public dressing down from Ron in front of a hiring committee than a compliment from any conceivable superior. And I would be more proud to have Ron Tober succeed me than to be hired lifelong to the most coveted position on Earth.
I’m sure motion would get a second from Joni Earl.
That is so quintessential Seattle!
Not bad for someone that “fails to meet expectations.”
Um, inflation has been 2% or less for the past decade and a half. Not that I’d want to deny somebody a good cost-of-living increase, but….
“Learn whose rings need to be kissed”, and trust your staff to help you figure that out.
“Don’t read too much into the name of your agency, particularly the last part [Central Puget Sound Regional Transit] AUTHORITY. ”
The most important thing Joni did was to publicly acknowledge her staff’s hard work. She might have pushed them, but she was always first to credit them with the accomplishments.
she knows where all the bodies are buried ;-)
Jim, might be a good idea to “red pencil” a couple of sentences, as I just did one of mine. They need to read:
“Before you kiss anybody’s ring, find out the last thing the wearer did with the finger the ring is on”
And: “Since everybody already knows where you’ve buried the bodies before you even kill their owner, take measures to make sure the paleontologists find the bones before somebody’s dog does.
Oh yeah, anybody know how to add furry ears, fangs, a tongue and a bone to an emoticon?
You guys do wonderful work, but this post should make it more clear, earlier, that Durkan and Johnson only opposed the decision because they didn’t think it went far enough.
Anyhow, if you know any ST staff this is not in the least surprising. The real question is whether due diligence was done in the hiring process. It strains credulity that there were not at least yellow flags in his past if anyone looked.
And “looking women up and down” is not the accepted Midwest or East Coast “way of doing things.” Objectifying subordinates cannot be chalked up to regional differences in behavior. He came from D.C., not 1965. If Dow feels that Rogoff was “very direct, bracingly direct, direct in a way that offended my Northwest sensibilities,” he might have stopped to wonder how Rogoff would treat, say, a young female staffer if that is how he addressed the (older, white, male) King County executive.
Good money says this is not over.
The public shaming is probably a last warning or prelude to firing him, but I’m glad the Board is giving Rogoff another chance to clean up his act. Being a transit General Manager is a difficult job done in a fishbowl with rabid cats watching from all sides. Part of the reason GMs have such short tenures is that it’s so easy to rouse the rabble of opposition. So the GM gets fired but there is no one available in the industry who is any better. So the cycle repeats itself.
Sound Transit has avoided the death spiral so far, thanks to Joni Earl, and it would be difficult to find a better CEO than Rogoff right now. They might want to consider instituting a stronger Chief of Staff position for internal management and turn Rogoff free to abuse state legislators and USDOT officials, who are undoubtedly fully deserving of it.
“So the GM gets fired but there is no one available in the industry who is any better.”
“… and it would be difficult to find a better CEO than Rogoff right now.”
And you base this conclusion on what exactly?
(The last part of your commentrary above reminds me of our current situation in the Oval Office and West Wing a la COS John Kelly.)
“and it would be difficult to find a better CEO than Rogoff right now.”
Says who and based on what? Because I can name a whole lot of CEOs who weren’t denied raises and essentially put on probation for inappropriate workplace behavior. The world abounds with difficult jobs. Some people handle those jobs with grace and build morale and mentor young staff, and some people have to have Joni Earl tell them to stop eyef*cking women in the elevator.
Could you name some candidates you think would be a good fit? Who would you want leading Sound Transit right now in place of Rogoff? I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but I would like to see who you (as someone who is presumably knowledgeable about how large transit agencies work) think would be a good leader at this time. I don’t know if Rogoff should be fired, but if he is to be replaced, the Board would have to start a year-long process and I’m skeptical that there are a large pool of first-rate candidates to choose from. Joni Earl is the rare individual who combined technical and analytical prowess with the personal (and political) skills necessary for a public organization that has to serve a diverse (and oftentimes oppositional) set of board members. This is not a typical CEO job, not with all the scrutiny and the mandate to serve such a diverse coalition.
Of course, I have never understood the seemingly obligatory need for always conducting a “nationwide search” for a local company replacement. Was there or is there NOBODY among current Sound Transit management who could be promoted without the need for a time-consuming, cost-bleeding nationwide search? Seems some other local entities have gotten flack for bad actors who came from across the country and who had no ties to this area.
These searches need to either be local or international. Mediocre managers are a dime a dozen in the Northwest. Why import another?
Someone like David Gunn (reformed NYCTA in the 1980s, from Nova Scotia) would be a great find, but likely won’t be found in the USA.
Scott Kubly is available :-P
Sound Transit has two big duties: To build and to operate. It’s hard to find someone to have the skills to do both.
However, Rogoff doesn’t appear to have robust skills in either area. Rogoff appears to be more of a government administrator than a manager-on-the-ground leader of a transit system. It appears that his main strength are more political and financial than in understanding how a transit system works on a day-to-day basis.
As far as building and even operating goes, having someone who is familiar with the day-to-day requirements of operating rail is probably what ST needs most. Some people think that Northwestern familiarity is an advantage — but frankly it’s more of a disadvantage if someone hasn’t worked with a mature light rail system. ST seems to look for people that will keep the elected board happiest, and not people who have lived through mistakes and successes of building and operating a more mature light rail system elsewhere.
ST could hire deputies to have these skills in these two areas — but so many of the ST senior staff that I’ve seen have gotten their jobs because of their obey-the-board personality and local familiarity, and not because they have insight by successfully led the building and operating of multi-billion dollar rail systems. I’ve heard the excuse that hiring national engineering firms provides that resource, but consultants aren’t going to raise hard questions about the big decisions that ST makes.
Unless someone has been a general manager of a multi-modal rail+bus transit system for several years, I am quite dubious that it’s the right hire. It’s like watching an agency hire more according to the Donald Trump model of senior staff choices.
The Stranger article had a link to the HR investigation, which I thought was more revealing. Calling women that work for you “honey”, constantly swearing and berating people who were on vacation or at church for not being available is just poor management.
To blame this on a east/west coast culture difference is just a cop out. Also, anyone who’s followed transit in this region knows what a reputation Earl had and if she felt the need to call him I imagine he came in like a sledgehammer when a more nuanced approach was probably needed during the transition.
For what it’s worth, red pencil line through my closing sentence. Edited to read:
“If faced with the same decision, I’m sure Joni Earl would say she’d make the same choice.”
I think we’ve all said everything we can, considering everything we know right now about this particular subject. Especially considering the main source of everything we’ve been told.
But I also think that with our time-in-grade and our attachment to this particular effort, design-building a transit system for a region that really needs and deserves a fine one, best thing for us to do is concentrate on what we can do to keep the work moving.
Remembering the value of “The inertia of Motion” in physics. Or riding a bicycle. Now matter how slowly something is moving, it’ll take a very large amount of energy to get it moving from a dead stop. Especially if instead of a bike-share it’s a Harley that just fell over.
Forget which branch of the Armed Forces- probably the Marines. Practice for a superior officer relating a story of a mass-casualty set-back to a trainee. Suddenly stop, point to a trainee, and ask: “What do you do now, Lieutenant?”
Let’s have a posting with a lot of comments on that theme.
ST Transit is racially insensitive, the real term racist, it comes from the top down. My daughter is african American and white has been on several ST buses were there was racist and violent talk of lynching N’s on the bus..The bus driver did nothing to make my teenage daughter feel safe. The racial insensitive aka racism is rampant and nothing will change if the leader is racist.. When you have videos of these racially charged encounters and the bus drivers not stopping it, it’s clear that they are racist also. The leader has promoted a racist attitude. Question when have you ever seen a African American Sound Transit driver.. Im waiting….. There are none of very few compared to other major transit agencies.. He can lie about what he said but numbers don’t lie Sound transit drivers are mostly white drivers
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