Claims against Moses Lake city officials released

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MOSES LAKE — The City of Moses Lake has released claims to the Columbia Basin Herald that three women have filed against Moses Lake City Manager John Williams, who was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, and former Deputy City Manager/Community Development Director Gilbert Alvarado, who resigned April 19.

In the claims, former assistant planner Billi Jo Munoz, former administrative secretary Jynnifer Tarver and permit technician Chris Bowen accuse Alvarado and Williams of fostering a hostile work environment through sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse of power.

The Herald afforded both Williams and Alvarado the opportunity to provide a written statement for this story. The newspaper delayed the release of the story for a day in order to give Alvarado and Williams ample time to respond, but they did not respond before the Herald’s press time on Thursday.

City Attorney Katherine Kenison reiterated that the allegations have not been verified, and that due to their extensive nature it could take weeks to investigate completely.

Sexual misconduct

The allegations laid out by the three women against Alvarado all focus on alleged sexual misconduct occurring over the course of a decade.

Chris Bowen, who was hired as a utility clerk in 2007, alleges that within a few years of her employment Alvarado began approaching her to brag in graphic terms about his sexual exploits and encounters. Bowen said her then-supervisor told her Alvarado used city money to go out of state for training purposes in order to facilitate these trysts.

Bowen alleges that, though she moved into a separate building from Alvarado in 2010, Alvarado continued to seek her out to tell her sexual or inappropriate jokes and stories, complimented her appearance, suggested revealing clothes she should wear and in one case showed her a nude photo another woman had sent him.

Bowen was selected for a job as a permit technician after she applied for the position in 2015, which put her back in the same building as Alvarado. This move is significant because one of the claims the women make is that females were overlooked for promotions. Bowen alleges Alvarado began to engage her in inappropriate conversations, this time describing other city employees in sexual terms and making sexual overtures toward Bowen. In late 2018, Bowen alleges Alvarado also showed her a sexually-explicit music video at work.

Billi Jo Munoz, who was hired as an assistant planner in 2007, also alleged Alvarado would discuss in graphic detail sexual activities he engaged in while ostensibly going to trainings, doctor’s appointments, and work-related meetings.

Munoz described it being difficult to discuss work matters with Alvarado without him diverting the conversation to something sexual, sometimes about herself or others employed by the city. She claimed Alvarado showed her a video of him engaged with intercourse with another woman.

Jynnifer Tarver, who was hired by the city as a utility clerk in 2015, alleges Alvarado would repeatedly invite her out for drinks during work, which she said she repeatedly declined before eventually acquiescing. Alvarado allegedly began calling Tarver outside of work hours to talk about personal and “sometimes very inappropriate” things. At one point, Tarver alleges that Alvarado showed her a sexually explicit music video at work, the same video he allegedly showed Bowen.

All three women alleged that Alvarado appeared to foster inappropriate relationships with two women who worked under him, first in his capacity as community development director and then in his capacity as deputy city manager.

One relationship in particular allegedly developed in late 2018 between Alvarado and a recently-hired employee, which Tarver and Bowen stated resulted in favorable treatment for the woman. Both Tarver and Bowen alleged Alvarado and the woman acted inappropriately in the office and spent hours each day talking during work, and that although the woman’s productivity suffered as a result, she never faced consequences.

Tarver stated because she felt the Human Resources department had been unable to resolve any of the workplace misconduct, she reported the situation to City Attorney Katherine Kenison. Kenison declined to confirm the conversation took place, citing attorney-client privilege.

Abuse of power

The three women also allege Williams and Alvarado abused their power to make them take on more work, make hiring decisions based on nepotism or favoritism, insult them, and punish those who tried to raise their concerns with HR or each other.

Munoz was injured in a work-related car accident in 2013, which she said caused her to undergo surgery in 2015. Complications from the surgery led her to take leave for several months at the direction of her doctor and Munoz believes she was being punished by Alvarado for being off work, despite being out because of medical leave.

Munoz and Tarver claim Alvarado and Williams would use the prospect of promotions to coerce them to work beyond their hours or duties.

While Tarver did receive a promotion during her tenure with the city, she claimed it was only because Williams and the HR Director at the time were concerned she would think she had been discriminated against.

In her claim, Tarver described her effort in 2017 to apply for an administrative secretary position. She stated a co-worker had informed her early on she would not be hired because she was a woman, a mother, and not white.

According to Tarver, the hiring process reinforced that view. Because she was the only internal candidate when the deadline closed, Tarver stated she would have typically been the first interview and if qualified, she would have been hired without opening the position to the public. Williams allegedly chose to ignore that custom.

While Tarver eventually was hired for the position, she said it was only because Williams had learned that same day that Tarver’s co-worker had said she would be discriminated against. Williams, however, denied that the hiring decision or process was affected by discrimination, according to the claims.

Tarver claimed Williams convinced her to sign a statement affirming that her co-worker had said Williams and Alvarado would discriminate against Tarver. Williams allegedly said it was “unacceptable that she had talked about administration in that way” at work. When Tarver initially refused, she alleged Williams threatened her by stating her new position meant she was on probation again, and he could fire her at any time. Tarver alleged Williams wanted to reprimand her co-worker because the co-worker had filed a hostile work environment claim a few months previously.

When the city’s acting HR director, Richard Bisnett, passed away later that year, Tarver stated she was handed the duties of the HR department without training or experience, adding a substantial amount of work to her day. Williams allegedly refused to hire a consultant and reprimanded Tarver for claiming overtime when she stayed late to complete the extra work.

“Comments such as ‘I am the only person at the city with the authority to hire and fire’ and ‘I could make today be your last day’ were constant,” Tarver wrote.

Tarver said the untenable workload and Williams’ demeaning behavior took a substantial toll on her mental and emotional well-being.

‘Dysfunctional’ HR

The women allege that employees were discouraged from bringing issues to the Human Resources department, and that those who did were reprimanded.

“This entire time, I felt like I had nowhere to go for help.” Tarver wrote. “During this time, the control John Williams had over HR became apparent. People are too afraid to make complaints. They are too afraid for their jobs and the retaliation that may come back on them should they raise any issues.”

According to Munoz, Alvarado made it clear early on during her tenure that she was not to go to HR with concerns, but that she was to take it up with Alvarado. When Munoz did approach Richard Bisnett, who was the HR Director until his death in 2017, she alleged he would share details of complaints or concerns told in confidence with Munoz’ co-workers.

“From every angle involving male leadership at the city, I was being attacked or undermined,” Munoz wrote.

Though Tarver had no training when the duties of the HR department were allegedly handed to her, she stated she quickly began to understand that the department was supposed to serve employees in a way that it had not.

“I was astounded at the dysfunctional role Human Resources had been playing versus what it should have been,” Tarver wrote. “But I felt I could make a difference.”

But Tarver claimed she was handicapped, as she was never given an official role in the department. When employees came to her asking if something could be done about the alleged affair between Alvarado and a woman working under him, Tarver said she was unable to help them without a formal HR title. Though co-workers raised concerns with her, Tarver stated they were afraid for their jobs if they filed a formal complaint.

“While I was with HR, I continually realized everyone was too afraid, or had so little faith in HR that they just did not bother speaking with HR,” Tarver wrote. “The previous HR manager had not been qualified; his position previous to HR Director was Utility Meter Reader. Not only did he lack the qualifications, he consistently broke confidentiality in a very obvious way.”

Though a new HR Director, Carlos Salazar, was eventually hired, Tarver believed he was still unable to fulfill his duties without interference from Williams. Tarver claimed that Salazar tried to discipline the woman with whom Alvarado was having allegedly having an affair for violating the city’s dress code, but the woman went to Williams and Alvarado and Salazar was allegedly reprimanded.

Next steps for the city

Claims from Bowen, Munoz and Tarver were originally filed April 24, and the city has until June 23 to respond before the claimants can proceed with a lawsuit. Three more women have reportedly also filed claims, Kenison confirmed Thursday, though receipt of those records is still pending.

The city council is holding its third special meeting to discuss potential litigation, but the specifics of the potential litigation have not been disclosed by the city. The special meetings are held entirely in executive session and are not open to the public.

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.

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