Former Puyallup Library director accuses city of wrongful termination

The former director of the Puyallup Public Library is accusing the city of wrongful termination and threatening legal action.

Tim Wadham contends city officials failed to accommodate his recently diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome and subsequently fired him for issues directly related to symptoms of the disorder.

City Manager Kevin Yamamoto has maintained Wadham’s termination Feb. 9 was related to problems with his job performance.

Wadham’s attorney, Clemencia Castro-Woolery of the Ledger Square Law firm, said the performance concerns dealt with communication and interpersonal interaction, skills often affected by a diagnosis such as Wadham’s.

“The basis for which he was terminated relates directly to his Asperger’s and the symptoms of Asperger’s,” she told The News Tribune.

Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to effectively socialize and communicate. It falls on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Associated behaviors include limited or inappropriate social interactions, challenges with nonverbal communication and inability to understand social or emotional issues.

According to the organization Autism Speaks, Asperger’s syndrome often goes undiagnosed until difficulties arise in school or the workplace, for example.

Wadham learned of his diagnosis in October, and Castro-Woolery said he disclosed it to the city verbally and in writing.

Yamamoto said the city has no evidence Wadham discussed the matter or requested workplace accommodations. Castro-Woolery disagreed, but said she wouldn’t comment on what accommodations her client sought from the city.

Personnel documents obtained by The News Tribune show the city spent $9,000 on an executive coach to help improve Wadham’s leadership and communication skills.

“Despite the City’s efforts to assist you, it appears that your managerial performance continues to be lacking,” Yamamoto wrote in a memo notifying Wadham of the city’s intent to terminate his employment.

The memo cites three examples of Wadham’s “poor judgment and discretion.”

They included an apparent retaliatory evaluation against a library manager, in which “unwarranted written comments” were submitted in contrast to the employee’s positive performance review from the previous year.

The manager received an “extremely critical” review after she relayed concerns about Wadham’s managerial style, the memo states.

Other problems cited were “poor communication” with a News Tribune reporter and improperly appointing an employee to address security concerns at the library.

Upon receiving the memo Feb. 6, Wadham was placed on paid administrative leave and fired three days later.

In a written response to the city manager, Wadham denounced the basis of his firing, writing he was unaware of the city’s dissatisfaction with his job performance.

“I feel like many of the issues you bring up are because you have not communicated your expectations to me,” the letter states.

Wadham blamed overly critical staff members for general problems within the library, which he wrote has suffered from a “toxic environment” since before he was hired three years ago.

He accused three staff members of excessive complaints to human resources and said the department enabled the behavior “no matter how frivolous” the complaints.

“The issue isn’t that my actions were inappropriate, but that they wanted to find a reason to criticize,” Wadham wrote.

Wadham also disputed the specific incidents cited in Yamamoto’s memo. He said the library manager’s negative job review was a result of a drop in the quality of her work.

“There was absolutely no thought of retaliation on my part,” he wrote.

Wadham also wrote that the communication concerns with the media didn’t warrant termination and that he didn’t formally appoint an employee to perform enhanced security responsibilities.

“Nothing that we were considering for this person was outside his normal duties,” he wrote.

In Wadham’s most recent performance review, former City Manager Bill McDonald listed several achievements by the former director.

They included fundraising for library improvements, collaborating with other city departments and enhancing the library’s programs and relationships.

He also noted that Wadham needed to improve interpersonal communication, listening and team-building skills.

“Your ability to connect with the employees of the library has been an unexpected problem,” McDonald wrote in the review. “We have talked at length about your personal style preferences and how some of them impede your ability to be a team player and leader.”

The document was reviewed and signed by Wadham in November.

Wadham’s personnel file also included a written warning that documented an “uncomfortable verbal exchange” at the library in October.

Employees saw Wadham make “inappropriate comments with regard to the inferred use of a weapon in reference to a patron who was nearby and had trespassed,” documents state.

“Those subjected to your comments believe it was a poor attempt at humor, to which you concurred,” McDonald wrote in the warning. It cautioned that the remarks potentially violated workplace violence policies.

Many in the community were shocked by Wadham’s sudden firing, and some spoke publicly about their disappointment at a council meeting last month.

The decision prompted Library Board Chairman Troy Kehm-Goins to resign. Kehm-Goins, who has said he was “heartbroken” and “blindsided” over Wadham’s departure, was about to begin another term.

Castro-Woolery said her client has yet to file a lawsuit and that he’s working with the city to settle the issue. She said Wadham, who planned to retire in Puyallup, hopes to get his job back.

“He intended to be here for a long time,” she said. “He really enjoyed this position and thought he did a good job at it.”