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WSF employee said she felt 'humiliated, intimidated and harassed' by Distler's behavior
Anacortes Terminal Supervisor Mark Tibbles called State Transportation Commissioner Bob Distler at home late May 14 and warned him he would have him "hauled off" by the State Patrol if he "treated one of my employees like that again."
Documents obtained from Washington State Ferries by The Journal provide more details about the exchange between Distler and a state ferry employee, which led to a warning letter to Distler from WSF's director of marine operations. That story was first reported June 23 on SanJuanJournal.com and published in the June 30 Journal.
According to the employee, Distler was No. 3 on overload for the 8:25 p.m. ferry for Orcas Island when he "yelled" several comments at her, among them, "You don't even know what you're doing." "You guys can't ever get it right." "I know what you guys are up to."
The employee said she was loading the 8:10 and 8:25 p.m. ferries simultaneously. At one point, when she ran past Distler's car, he "started laughing loudly at me in a condescending way," the employee stated.
As he boarded the ferry, he tapped on his wrist and said to her, "Yep, looks like you guys will get your overtime."
The employee said she felt "humiliated, intimidated and harassed" and complained to the terminal supervisor, who called Distler at home that evening. Distler apologized to the employee two days later at the terminal supervisor's recommendation.
In the Journal/SanJuanJournal.com story, Distler admitted he got "short-tempered" with a ferry worker while he was in Anacortes waiting to board the ferry. 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 WSF's director of marine operations. "I was very much taken (aback) by the letter," he said. "I thought it had been put to bed more than a month ago."
Marta Coursey, communications director for the state Department of Transportation, said the incident 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."
She said the warning letter from WSF is "characteristic of what we communicate if there has been an ongoing problem."
Asked if that was true, 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 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.
Transportation 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's commission term expires June 30. He said he has applied for reappointment.
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.