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Frozen Out

In the middle of a chaotic winter, the city of Spokane ousted its veteran street director, but won't give an explanation to the city council

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Citizen complaints about snowplowing continued to pour in after Street Director Mark Serbousek was let go on Feb. 2. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Citizen complaints about snowplowing continued to pour in after Street Director Mark Serbousek was let go on Feb. 2.

On Jan. 9, during the worst winter of his term as mayor, David Condon stood beside Street Director Mark Serbousek, announcing yet another Stage 2 snow event. It would be the last time. Less than a month later, Serbousek was ousted from the position he'd held for a decade.

The city has refused to say why. While it eventually confirmed that Serbousek and his former second-in-command, Andy Schenk, would remain with the city as principal engineers, it has refused to describe their new roles.

"This is a personnel matter," the city's written statement reads, "and the City has no further comment."

This is not the first time that unanswered questions have swirled around the Condon administration's decision to remove a high-level director from his position. In 2014, the city suddenly booted Scott Chesney from his job as planning director. In 2015, the city forced the resignation of police Chief Frank Straub.

But this time, if anything, the city has been more tight-lipped. Unlike with Chesney, no press release was issued announcing the change. Unlike with Straub, no mayoral press conference was held.

In the cases of Chesney and Straub, the Condon administration gave the city council more information about the decisions in a private executive session. But here, the council has been stonewalled by the same mantra chanted at the public.

"It was really described to me as a personnel matter, and they weren't going to talk about it," says City Council President Ben Stuckart. Serbousek asked him why he'd been pushed out of the position, Stuckart says, but he didn't have an answer. The most recent performance review for Serbousek turned up by public records is two years old.

Former Spokane Street Director Mark Serbousek.
  • Former Spokane Street Director Mark Serbousek.

"At this time I only have one comment to make," Serbousek writes in response to the Inlander. "I am proud of my team and our efforts to maintain safe and efficient transportation, while working to minimize citizen inconvenience especially during challenging snow years."

SNOW FALL

Across multiple mayoral administrations, Serbousek served as both head of the street department and its chief defender.

He's been there as plow drivers have been cursed out, flipped off and had guns waved at them. Each time, Serbousek has been the one explaining to a frustrated public the inherent challenges of filling in potholes and plowing Spokane. But this winter, marked by blizzards, cold snaps and freezing rain, has been particularly difficult.

Phone calls flooded into the city's customer service line. Before Serbousek was ousted, the line logged more than 140 complaints this winter about the city's snow-plowing response, though some were repeat calls from the same residents. There were complaints about snowplow drivers damaging cars, shoving snow onto sidewalks, throwing chunks of ice, skipping streets and plowing the wrong side of the street. In particular, residents were outraged over the massive snow berms that plows dumped in front of residential driveways.

"A woman I talked to was a single mom, who had to leave her baby inside so she could clear her berm outside," Stuckart says. "She was literally crying."

Businesses also have been upset. Downtown Spokane Partnership director Mark Richard says that the city, in early January, had been slow to start the intensive plowing process. DSP couldn't find any information on the city's website regarding when downtown would be plowed. When DSP finally was given the schedule, the plows arrived a day late, initially leaving big berms in the middle of roads.

"That was one day, so what's the big deal? But when you think it about it from a business standpoint, it is a big deal," says Richard. "It's a livelihood deal."

Mark Sterk, who handles safety and transportation for Spokane Public Schools, says that the school district was frustrated as well. Major routes to schools weren't being plowed, and buses were getting stuck.

"We've got 45,000 people moving in and out of our schools every day," Sterk says. "It really breaks down when we can't get buses and cars there getting kids to school."

But when Sterk's staff reached out to the street department, the district was simply told that the schools weren't on the priority list. District superintendent Shelley Redinger texted the mayor personally to ask for help.

In the following weeks — before the leadership change — the city's snow response and communication improved, both Sterk and Richard say.

By the time Serbousek defended the street department's performance — explaining the challenges posed by weather conditions, equipment, and residents who refused to move their cars — at the Jan. 23 Public Works Committee meeting, the response from city council members was largely appreciation.

"I was really impressed with the response," Councilman Breean Beggs said at the meeting. "The best ideas that came to me, you guys have already been doing these."

The next week, Public Works & Utilities Division Director Scott Simmons removed Serbousek from his job.

THE PUBLIC'S BUSINESS

For the record, Condon says that the public has a right to know how well a city department is doing.

"The performance of a department?" Condon says. "Sure! You see the performance measures, and that's why we get feedback on streets and talk to the public about how we're doing it."

Going into this snow season, official performance measures for the street department have been largely trending negative. Though the number of severe potholes being reported had decreased, the percentage of those potholes filled within two days of being reported has fallen significantly.

Condon identifies a number of different ways the city street department could improve, including involving the community in street designs, minimizing disruption during construction, and improving communication with the public.

But when the Inlander presses him to get more specific about the recent street department performance, city spokesman Brian Coddington leaps in to cut off the line of questioning, insisting that the mayor was only speaking generally.

"If your question is about Mark Serbousek," Coddington says, "the statement is the statement."

The city has even become more stingy with public records. In 2014, Condon sent a letter to Chesney, the ousted planning director, explaining that public records requests would "require the disclosure of your ... performance reviews."

This time, the city has refused to release Serbousek's performance reviews for 2013 and 2015, arguing that public records law exempts them from doing so. The city did not explain why the standards for the planning director and the street department were different.

A number of Inlander interview requests were rejected. A request to interview Gary Kaesemeyer, the new interim street department director? Denied. A request to interview Simmons about the direction of the street department? Denied, with the suggestion from Simmons that the Inlander "check back on Street Department changes in about six months."

"Unfortunate that we cannot be more respectful of personnel matters," Simmons said in a text message to a city spokeswoman after a flurry of press inquiries from local TV stations.

For Stuckart, the new leadership is a chance to re-examine a department that, he feels, has sometimes seemed to resist innovation. He suggests that the city consider a number of questions. Should the city spend more to plow the city faster? Should it upgrade snowplows with devices that allow drivers to avoid plowing in driveways? Should it change the mix it uses to plug potholes?

"I hope we can take it as an opportunity," Stuckart says.

In the past, he's often been out in front, slamming the Condon administration for keeping information from the public. Here, he's more sympathetic to the tough spot that Condon's in.

"The mayor gets stuck in a no-win position," Stuckart says. When the mayor refuses to say why somebody was let go, he's hammered for not being transparent. When the mayor does say what happened, he risks getting targeted with a lawsuit that costs a fortune to defend.

"I assume they're being overly cautious on a personnel issue because they got sued with Straub," Stuckart says. A year and a half later, the former police chief's lawsuit against the city is ongoing, with an appeal awaiting the Ninth Circuit. The complaint hinges on the letters from police leadership critiquing Straub's performance that Condon distributed at the press conference announcing the police chief's resignation.

Still, even Councilman Mike Fagan, who has generally defended the mayor's personnel decisions, suggests that he may push for more information.

"I'm not going to let this thing hang out there for a month," Fagan says. "I could stand there all day long and say, 'It's a personnel matter and I'm not going to comment.' I'd much rather be open and transparent."♦

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