Special Reports

Embattled HR director argues for his job

The City of Tacoma's embattled human resources director, on paid leave since February and scheduled to be fired Thursday, delivered a letter Tuesday to City Manger Jim Walton warning him that following through with the dismissal would be "inappropriate and unlawful."

Phil Knudsen, a central figure in the fallout from the David Brame shootings, defended himself against claims that he violated city rules by improperly interfering with hiring and promotion decisions.

He also reiterated his charge that Walton is retaliating against him for refusing to follow the party line regarding what was discussed by top city officials the day before Brame fatally shot his wife and himself.

And he noted other cases where, he said, city employees were accused of more serious transgressions than he and yet escaped punishment or received a lesser form of discipline.

Termination, Knudsen said, "would not be proportionate to the nature of allegations against me, particularly in light of the City's past record of tolerating employee transgressions."

He added that termination "should only be a last resort when an employee has shown an unwillingness to respond to lesser forms of discipline. My years of service to the City demonstrate that I am not such an employee."

"I would therefore strongly urge you to reconsider your proposed termination of my employment," Knudsen wrote.

Walton declined Tuesday to comment on the letter.

Walton placed Knudsen on paid administrative in late February pending the outcome of two investigations of alleged misconduct.

In one case, Knudsen was accused of changing the "pass point" on a civil service examination in May 2002, in violation of city policy, to allow an employee to keep her position, according to the termination letter sent to Knudsen. In the other, he was accused of attempting to thwart a job candidate's chances by telling someone on an interview panel that he didn't want the candidate to make the final cut.

In a letter dated May 28, Walton notified Knudsen that he planned to fire him effective June 11 based on the outcome of those investigations. The effective date was postponed to June 24 after Knudsen requested more time to prepare his response.

In his response to the firing letter, Knudsen said the charges against him regarding the alleged manipulation of a civil service test are unfounded. The investigator failed to cite a single rule that he violated, Knudsen wrote.

In the second instance, Knudsen admitted he didn't want the job candidate to become a finalist, but he said Walton needed to consider his motives.

Knudsen said he was being pressured by City Councilman Rick Talbert to consider the candidate for the job of assistant human resources director, but Knudsen didn't believe the candidate was qualified.

Knudsen said he didn't want to bow to Talbert's pressure, but he also didn't want to upset Talbert by rejecting the candidate if he made it to the final round of consideration.

Talbert said he never pressured Knudsen and never had a conversation with him about the job candidate.

"It never happened," Talbert said.

The individual's name came up during a conversation that included Talbert, Knudsen and interim Police Chief Don Ramsdell, he said. But he said he didn't know at that time the individual was a candidate for a city job.

In his letter, Knudsen contends he was the victim of retaliation because he refused to "fix" his recollection of a meeting of top city officials the day before Brame fatally shot his wife and himself.

Knudsen and his top assistant, Mary Brown, said the meeting included a discussion of pulling Brame's gun and badge.

Then-City Attorney Robin Jenkinson and her top assistant, Elizabeth Pauli, held a news conference to refute the claim. The disagreement became a source of consternation within City Hall.

The day before he was put on leave, Knudsen filed a whistleblower complaint over the disagreement.

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542