The city of Tacoma’s top economic development official was fired Monday after an investigation found he “created an environment that has left his female staff feeling demeaned, demoralized and unwelcomed.”
In response, Ricardo Noguera, director of the Community and Economic Development Department, signaled in a claim filed with the city that he intends to sue.
He alleges City Manager Elizabeth Pauli treated him and other people of color unfairly.
Reached Friday night, Noguera called allegations of discrimination “absolutely false” and said he felt “betrayed” by his employees.
“Of my most recent hires, three of the five people have been women and three of the five people have been people of color,” he said. “I’ve never been accused of being a poor leader in my life.”
In response to Noguera’s legal claim, City Attorney Bill Fosbre said Friday the city denies his allegations. City officials declined further comment.
Investigative documents and two city reports obtained by The News Tribune painted Noguera as an ineffective, boorish and sometimes socially clueless manager who commented on women’s looks and treated them differently than men in the workplace.
The city received complaints about Noguera’s behavior on Oct. 25 and Nov. 7, Fosbre said via email. On Nov. 9, the city stripped him of his supervisory duties and told him to work outside of the office while the city investigated his behavior.
The city interviewed 30 employees in the department and completed its investigation nearly two weeks later. It found a hostile work environment based on Noguera’s conduct, a letter to him states.
“The evidence indicates that the Director created an environment that has left his female staff feeling demeaned, demoralized and unwelcomed,” according to a city report.
“Several females complained of the Director referring to them as ‘pretty girls,’ ” one report to the city manager states. Another employee said Noguera twice said she was not as pretty as her coworkers. Several said Noguera likes to hug his female employees.
Two women told investigators they felt they were denied job opportunities because of their gender. One told investigators Noguera said “she could never expect to advance within the city due to her being a single mother.” The other said she was denied because Noguera told her “men find her intimidating.”
Another woman told investigators Noguera dismissed her ideas, “but I would have a male colleague convey the same information and it would be heard.”
Noguera told an older woman she was “too old to do things or too old to make certain mistakes,” according to the investigator’s notes.
Women told investigators Noguera gave administrative support to men but not to women, took men but not women out for drinks after work and made comments on women’s dress and attractiveness.
A second report addresses his leadership style. It was “described as transactional, not strategic, that he is not a good communicator, not self-aware and disorganized.”
“He’s berating, belittling and disrespectful,” one worker is quoted in the report. Another said, “He feels that berating people motivates them.”
In a Nov. 28 response, Noguera said he was shocked and caught off guard by the allegations against him.
“The allegations against me are very damaging, and, for the most part, false,” he wrote in a letter to the city in late November. “I am very sorry that some of my staff felt demeaned, demoralized and uncomfortable because of my actions and words. I apologize for making them feel that way.”
In his 12-page response, he admitted to hugging one employee after learning her cat had died. He attributed his sometimes confrontational leadership style to playing devil’s advocate or role-playing.
After the investigation was completed, the city offered to retain Noguera in a lesser job with lower pay.
He would have become the city’s chief development officer with a cut in salary — $141,000 a year, down from $168,896 — plus a one-time payment of nearly $7,000 in extra compensation.
He declined the demotion, and the city fired him, citing “performance and behavioral concerns in the workplace.”
After being fired, Noguera filed a claim with the city, a precursor to a lawsuit.
It calls the allegations against him “an over-exaggerated and mostly false complaint by a former employee.” The investigation focused on the “negatives and untruths rather than all of the positives Mr. Noguera has brought to the City in just five years,” the claim states.
In addition, Noguera says that though no grievances had ever been filed against him, the city’s report says he “has been coached about his behaviors in the past, and it appears as though the behaviors have not changed.”
“The community supports him and he has been recognized as an excellent City employee whom is credited for turning the Tacoma economy around,” his claim states.
It asks the city to settle the matter by paying him $1 million, providing a year of health and dental insurance for him and his family, giving him a good reference and following confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses.
Noguera began working for the city in 2012 as the head of the Community and Economic Development Department. He previously worked in economic development for nearly 30 years, including in Florida and California.
Noguera was in charge of several divisions and projects in addition to economic development.
They included a program that increases affordable housing opportunities in the city; the city’s office of arts and cultural vitality; its geographic information systems and data analysis office; and an office to help Tacomans complete apprenticeships for family-wage jobs.
Among his successes, he lists the purchase of Old City Hall, the construction of the $85 million Marriott hotel next to the city’s convention center, the upcoming $125 million Town Center Tacoma project, developments in Tacoma's brewery district and several new multifamily buildings in the downtown area.
Noguera said he has led projects that have resulted in more than half a billion dollars in construction in downtown Tacoma.
“You can see the cranes in downtown Tacoma now,” he said Friday. “That’s all about leadership.”
Kim Bedier, the city’s executive in charge of the Tacoma Dome and the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, has stepped in as acting director of the Community and Economic Development Department.
“I look on it as an opportunity to have a great learning experience and work with a really solid team,” Bedier said Friday.