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Transportation Commissioner Bob Distler of Orcas Island warned about communications with WSF employees

Bob Distler ... Washington State Transportation Commission vice chairman. - Washington State Transportation Commission
Bob Distler ... Washington State Transportation Commission vice chairman.
— image credit: Washington State Transportation Commission

State Transportation Commissioner Bob Distler of Orcas Island has been advised by Washington State Ferries that he could be denied ferry access if he again "engages in disruptive behavior" with ferry workers.

Steven V. Rodgers, director of marine operations for WSF, wrote a letter to Distler, dated June 18, as a followup to a discussion the two had regarding a complaint from a WSF employee in Anacortes. The letter recognizes that Distler had apologized to the terminal supervisor and the traffic attendant, "assuring them this type of behavior would not happen again."

While Rodgers writes that he's "confident this issue will not arise again in the future," he advises Distler, "I ... want to be sure you understand that harassment or hostility towards WSF employees engaged in their duties will not be tolerated. WSF has the authority to deny passage to anyone who engages in disruptive behavior and will exercise that authority if necessary."

Marta Coursey, communications director for the state Department of Transportation, said Distler had had "some strong opinions" about how ferry employees were loading a ferry "and he shared those opinions in a way that wasn't helpful."

In a June 23 interview with The Journal, Distler said he got "short-tempered" with a ferry worker while he was in Anacortes waiting to board the 8:25 p.m. ferry to Orcas Island, May 14. He said he was concerned about how the 8:10 and 8:25 p.m. ferries were being loaded. He couldn't recall exactly what he said, but added, "I didn't mean anything personal about it."

Distler said he apologized to the employee May 18 or 19 and talked to her supervisor about the incident and his apology. He thought the issue was resolved and was surprised to get the letter from Rodgers. "I was very much taken (aback) by the letter," he said. "I thought it had been put to bed more than a month ago."

Coursey said the incident referred to in the letter was not Distler's first.

"Tensions run high during peak traffic times in the San Juan Islands, we understand that people get frustrated with each other, but we expect all travelers to practice patience with staff who are doing their best to get our customers to their destination."

Asked whether she would characterize Rodgers' letter as a letter of reprimand, Coursey said the letter is "characteristic of what we communicate if there has been an ongoing problem."

"Staff had said to our director of operations that they were frustrated with how he had communicated with them and wanted an official response to him. They wanted it formalized. It had happened on more than one occasion and they wanted to make sure Bob didn't do it again."

Asked if WSF was correct that the May 14 confrontation was not his first, Distler said, "I can get a little heated at times ... I'm a brusque person and there are times when I've been extremely frustrated."

Distler has long worked to improve the time it takes for ferries to arrive and depart in the San Juan Islands — called "dwell time." "I don't know why it takes 35 minutes in Anacortes to do what takes 15 minutes in Mukilteo," he said. That's a complex problem that involves traffic patterns in island towns where the ferries land, as well as the condition of ferries and terminals.

Ferry workers in Anacortes are working at a "terrible" facility, he said, and the plans for renovating the ferry terminal are "so old they are yellowed."

"It's a tough operation there," he said.

The seven transportation commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Commissioners serve six-year terms and are paid $12.50 per hour, not to exceed $100 per day, while on commission business, according to the commission office. Commissioners are also entitled to a non-employee ferry pass each, for use on commission-related travel.

Distler was appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2005; he is the commission's vice chairman. Previously, he was chairman of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee. According to his commission biography, his career has been in transportation management and he has been a consultant for airlines, cruise lines and railroads.

Distler's commission term expires June 30. He said he has applied for reappointment.

Here is a transcript of Rodgers' letter to Distler:

* * *

Dear Mr. Distler,

As you are aware, I have received a written complaint from an employee in Anacortes regarding "humiliating and harassing" behavior she received from you. She indicates you have a reputation of this type of behavior which indicated you have exhibited this conduct on more than this one occasion. I have enclosed redacted documents for your review.

You and I discussed this situation on June 10, 2010 and you informed me you had personally apologized to both the Terminal Supervisor and the Traffic Attendant, assuring them this type of behavior would not happen again.

The employees involved are concerned of a pattern of perceived hostility towards them as they do their jobs to the best of their abilities. I am also concerned and want to be sure you understand that harassment or hostility towards WSF employees engaged in their duties will not be tolerated. WSF has the authority to deny passage to anyone who engages in disruptive behavior and will exercise that authority if necessary.

I appreciate your candor and concern when we talked so I'm confident this issue will not arise in the future.

Sincerely,

Steven V. Rodgers
Director, Marine Operations
Washington State Ferries

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