Puyallup Mayor John Knutsen made a joke, but not everybody was laughing. It resulted in a complaint from a city staff member and, on Tuesday night, it led to a split vote from the City Council denouncing his conduct.
Knutsen, an apparent fan of the TV comedy series “Seinfeld,” was giving a tour of Puyallup City Hall to visitors last month when he introduced a city staff member as a “sign Nazi” – a reference he later said was inspired by a well-known joke in the sitcom.
After the employee complained and the council asked him to apologize, Knutsen says he wrote the individual an apology letter and agreed not to use the phrase again.
A month later, some on the Puyallup City Council drafted a statement publicly denouncing the behavior and urging Knutsen to “establish a positive and friendly reputation” for the city.
Council members voted 4-2 Tuesday that the statement was a “collective” understanding of appropriate mayor conduct.
“We believe it is important to be respectful to City staff and to represent the City with dignity and in a courteous manner to all persons and entities,” the council letter states.
Council members Julie Door, John Hopkins, John Palmer and Heather Shadko supported the statement, while colleagues Tom Swanson and Steve Vermillion opposed it; Knutsen abstained from voting.
Supporters of the statement said Knutsen has exhibited a pattern of behavior that needed to be addressed, while opponents said the problem had already been resolved and the letter was merely intended to publicly embarrass the mayor.
In an email obtained by The News Tribune, the city employee reported the June 10 incident to a department director.
According to the employee’s report, Knutsen was walking on the second floor of City Hall with two military guests, including a brigadier general from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The employee reached out to shake hands with one of the men when Knutsen said: “This is the sign Nazi.”
The joke appeared to be a variation of “the soup Nazi,” a stern chef character on a “Seinfeld” episode.
The complaint also stated that it wasn’t the first time Knutsen had used that term, citing at least two other similar incidents, all of which made the individual feel “embarrassed” and “belittled.”
The employee requested that the mayor “immediately stop using this abhorrent and objectionable language when speaking to me,” according to the email.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Knutsen defended his actions. He said he’s learned that “‘Seinfeld’ humor” isn’t allowed, adding that people only find jokes funny if they like the person who’s telling them.
“I did not intend to cause (the employee) any discomfort,” he said.
Swanson was frustrated that some council members decided to publicly rehash an issue that had been resolved.
“We already had an executive session and agreed on a remedy,” Swanson said, referring to the personal apology letter.
Vermillion called the council members’ letter a “childish” attempt to “create embarrassment for the mayor.”
Shadko stressed that “this is the first time this has come to HR, but this isn’t the first time” the mayor’s conduct has raised concerns.
“This isn’t just one incident,” she said. “The staff should not have to be derided.”
Knutsen is the most veteran member of the City Council, having served since 2008. He said he’s been “bending over backwards to be fair and honest” since he was appointed Puyallup mayor this year, and said the council was wasting city time voting on his conduct.
“I hate to see this happen,” he said. “Our time should not be wasted with this ridiculousness.”