King County Councilmember accused of history of ‘verbally abusive’ behavior toward female staff

Oct 22, 2021, 12:25 PM | Updated: 4:38 pm
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski...
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski. (King County Council, Facebook)
(King County Council, Facebook)

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski is facing accusations detailing a history of verbally abusive behavior toward female colleagues and staff members. This comes in the wake of the council’s Chief of Staff Carolyn Busch resigning as a result of that alleged behavior.

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The allegations were laid out in a letter in February 2021 addressed to Dembowski from fellow King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, acquired by KIRO Radio reporter Hanna Scott via a public records request. In it, Balducci described how she had heard from a number of staff members regarding Dembowski’s behavior.

“A number of people in the legislative branch have come to me with concerns and complaints about your treatment of them and others, especially since I began serving in leadership,” she wrote. “These reports have come from and have been about treatment of fellow elected officials, our chief of staff, our former chief legal counsel, and staff in both the legislative branch and other parts of County government.”

Balducci went on to note in the letter to Dembowski that she “personally witnessed [him] lose [his] temper and become verbally abusive toward our former legal counsel, causing that seasoned and highly-respected professional to offer his resignation on the spot.”

“A number of colleagues and subordinate staff have spoken to me about the stress they have experienced based on your behavior toward them or that they have observed toward others,” she continued. “I have heard from other leaders in the branch that they, too, have been approached by staff members with serious concerns.”

Balducci observed that instances of Dembowski’s “harsh treatment” of staff would “often involve women on the receiving end.”

Records show that Busch approached the county prosecuting attorney along with three other women in 2018 to complain about Dembowski’s behavior, but no official complaint was filed. Then in 2019, an email from Busch to Dembowski alleged that he had retaliated against her.

“You said you could not trust me because you knew I’d gone with a group of women to the (prosecuting attorney) with a complaint about you,” Busch claimed. “You were dismissive and said you ‘figured it out.’ I pointed out that I had four women very angry with their treatment by you and that I wasn’t pleased either.”

“… We said we each felt treated differently than other people and there was enough commonality between us, we felt there was a pattern and this was problematic,” she added.

The county eventually brought in a mediator to help mend the working relationship between Dembowski and Busch, where both parties agreed to “shut down” rumors and gossip about each other, and to cease “making critical comments to others.”

Busch resigned from her role in June 2021 as part of a $33,000 settlement with the county, under the condition that she drop all grievances against Dembowski or any other county officials.

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Busch also faced accusations herself of hostile and potentially discriminatory conduct in 2019. That stemmed from a meeting with council staff members, where she was “emotionally animated, speaking with a very loud voice, [and was] upset/angry about potential lies being spread and a recent ‘hallway discussion’ with a Councilmember, initially standing over and swearing while she recounted the hallway encounter.”

During the meeting, she was also said to have “remarked that one of the candidates ‘presented as white’ despite being Latina.”

An investigation later ruled that Busch had indeed engaged in inappropriate conduct — albeit not of a discriminatory nature — and that she “could benefit from” executive coaching. In a statement to the Seattle Times, she further clarified that she “made a mistake, owned my mistake completely, and I changed my behavior.”

In response to a question from KIRO Radio asking if Dembowski, in his opinion, has been specifically abusive verbally or otherwise, or inappropriate with female staff, colleagues, or subordinates, he said no.

“No, and no one has ever filed a complaint against me alleging any violation of workplace safety,” Dembowski said.

When asked about steps he’s taken to address the complaints against him and his alleged behavior, he again made it clear that no complaint against him has been filed.

“There has never been a complaint against me,” he said. “I will always work to lead and communicate in a respectful way. Where I have personally missed the mark, I sincerely apologize.”

Councilmember Balducci expressed that she feels this has been resolved.

“We have these complaints that came forward, and we did what you do. We had discussions. Then the complaints continued. We did some mediation that didn’t fully resolve things. I wrote the letter that I wrote in order to escalate and say, ‘this must stop,’ and then it did,” Balducci said. “… I haven’t had any complaints about Councilmember Dembowski since I sent that letter, and so I feel that this is resolved.”

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King County Councilmember accused of history of ‘verbally abusive’ behavior toward female staff