A few weeks after his hiring in January, SeaTac’s new interim City Manager James “Donny” Payne asked the staff geographic-information systems coordinator to undertake an unusual project.
“Mr. Payne stated an interest in knowing with a great deal of specificity (to the neighborhood, house, and even person) where Sunni and Shiite Muslim residents lived,” an investigator later wrote in a report issued to the city.
Payne explained creating such a “tactical map” of Muslim residents from census data would be useful “in case he needed to go into the neighborhoods to ‘make the peace,’ ” the report said.
His idea for mapping the city’s Muslim residents never materialized, partly because the census doesn’t collect religious information, the investigator found.
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But the proposal — viewed by some as an attempt at ethnic profiling — offers a stark example on a list of questionable actions that marked Payne’s brief tenure as SeaTac’s chief executive, according to interviews and records.
After less than three months on the job, Payne, a 47-year-old military veteran with no previous municipal management experience, resigned April 6, shortly before the investigator’s findings became public.
In a recent interview, Payne roundly denied the findings, describing the report as “a hatchet job” riddled with mischaracterizations and unsubstantiated conclusions.
His efforts to garner demographic data — not just about Muslims, but all SeaTac residents — was aimed to better understand the city and serve its citizens, he added.
“I was trying to provide good governance to a diverse population,” Payne said. “And this is what is so outrageous to me: Because it was a white male asking for this information, suddenly people jumped to the conclusion that I must be out to get certain people. I’m deeply offended by that.”
The city’s investigation — led by Michael Griffin, an attorney for a national employment law firm — came to a far different conclusion.
“Mr. Payne’s concerns about Muslims committing acts of terrorism seem to be the main motivation for his GIS mapping request,” he wrote.
Griffin also found Payne sought to create a fraudulent hiring process to employ an acquaintance and asked SeaTac’s police chief whether she’d support reversing a city ban on employees from bringing firearms to work.
“The report stands on its own,” said Mark Johnsen, senior assistant city attorney. “We’ve accepted it, Mr. Payne no longer works here, and we’re moving forward.”
In the wake of the findings, some immigrants living in this mostly nonwhite, working class city of 28,000 say they’re disturbed about SeaTac’s elected leadership.
“I love this city,” said Abdirahman Yussuf, a Somali immigrant and Muslim who has lived in SeaTac for a decade. “It’s one of the most diverse cities in the state. So how could they hire this culturally incompetent person?”
Known as the “Forschler Four,” the slate of candidates who campaigned on a theme of reforming SeaTac City Hall last fall handily ousted four incumbents and took control of the seven-member City Council in January.
The new majority quickly fired the city manager. Then, Rick Forschler, the new group’s leader who had been selected as mayor, asked Payne — a political acquaintance — to apply for the interim manager job.
Payne lived in neighboring Des Moines, beneath the flight path of Sea-Tac Airport’s third runway. An Army major in the Washington National Guard with past deployments to Afghanistan, he’d just received a master’s degree in public administration. Other than a brief stint as a Seattle police officer, Payne’s résumé lacked any municipal-government experience.
Still, Forschler liked Payne’s idea for imposing a tax on the Port of Seattle to compensate for what he saw as the airport’s impacts on SeaTac: noise, traffic and crime.
“Donny understood the airport was the biggest negative impact we had, and he gave thought to solving the problem,” Forschler said. “In my mind, that was huge.”
On Jan. 19, the council’s majority — Forschler, Peter Kwon, Michael Siefkes and Erin Sitterly — voted to appoint Payne over three other candidates, including one with more than 35 years of city management experience.
Payne’s lack of experience, his previous ties to Forschler, and the council’s unusual appointment process — the job hadn’t been advertised — led “multiple witnesses” to believe the majority had preselected Payne and “the hiring process was a sham,” Griffin found.
Forschler recently countered: “I didn’t know how it was going to go until we came out in public and voted.”
Payne started work Jan. 20 with a $12,500 monthly salary. Almost immediately, his militaristic approach clashed with staff, according to interviews and records.
Payne quickly wanted to hire an acquaintance as his “second in command” but didn’t want the hiring to appear like a sham, Griffin found. Payne allegedly asked human-resources director Vanessa Audett to create a hiring process that would publicly appear competitive but result in hiring his acquaintance.
When Audett refused Payne’s request during a private meeting March 16, Payne got angry, tried to bully her and likely made an offensive remark about her Asian heritage, the report said.
Payne denies Audett’s account and claims she lied about a benign reference to “saving face” in Japanese culture that wasn’t aimed at her.
Audett left the meeting, went directly to the city attorney and broke down when recounting her meeting with Payne.
“I don’t understand why she went off and cried to the city attorney, other than perhaps I was strong enough with her and she was unaccustomed to that kind of strength, as it were,” Payne said last week.
Two days after the meeting, Audett emailed the council a complaint alleging harassment, retaliation and discrimination. Payne was put on paid leave, and the city hired Griffin to investigate.
The investigation, based on interviews with 21 people and a review of records, concluded Audett’s claims were “well founded” and that Payne’s troubling conduct went beyond his interactions with her.
A former assistant city manager who left the city shortly after Payne’s hiring told Griffin that Payne spoke about starting an “Americanization” or “assimilation” program for new immigrants.
Payne’s separate request to map Muslims made the GIS coordinator “uncomfortable,” Griffin noted.
“Although at some point Mr. Payne did say something to the effect of ‘I guess we could break down Christians into Catholic and Protestants,’ it seems to have been an afterthought,” Griffin found.
Payne also allegedly discussed concerns about Somali and Eritrean communities, the Ferguson, Missouri, conflicts and “radicalized Muslims” with SeaTac’s police chief.
“He seemed fixated on social unrest,” Griffin wrote.
Payne countered Griffin’s findings were “cherry-picked” to mischaracterize portions of larger conversations aimed at better understanding city issues and getting to know employees.
“Having a diverse community is fantastic. I can’t understate that,” Payne added. “But it’s been spun that I’m against diversity. I’m not.”
Though he adamantly disputes the findings, Payne said he resigned because his ability to effectively lead had been compromised.
“The council chose me to be a change agent, then at the first rumblings some of them started to distance themselves from the change agent,” he said.
Forschler also disputes the report’s suggestions he sought to discredit Audett by asking a city employee to write a critical statement about her and enlisting his political ally, a local developer, to defend Payne.
“That’s just not true,” Forschler said. “I was an advocate for having fair treatment.”
Forschler ultimately resigned as mayor, he said, only because his blood pressure spiked to “emergency levels” during the investigation. He remains on the council.
The findings about Payne, first reported by The SeaTac Blog, are “a frightening thing, not just for Muslims living in SeaTac, but anybody,” said resident Jamal Ahmed. “It’s also a wake-up call for our Somali-East African community to become more engaged in the political process.”
Meantime, some supporters of the council majority refute the report and blame city staff for what they describe as an overblown flap.
Longtime resident Vicki Lockwood isn’t among them. She voted for SeaTac’s reform candidates but now wants Forschler to resign.
“All of this was so twisted and perverted and extremist and radical,” she said. “It just makes my skin crawl.”