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‘Im here to be difficult’: Spokane Valley closes investigation into councilmember

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(The Center Square) – The City of Spokane Valley wrapped up its investigation into Councilmember Al Merkel on Thursday, saying he “berated” and “belittled” staff, making them feel fearful at city hall.

The investigation initially ensued in March following a city employee’s complaint that Merkel had engaged in “improper” communications and behavior, leading other employees to raise safety concerns over him, according to the investigation’s findings.

Merkel maintained throughout the process that he had done nothing wrong and that the city had not informed him of his alleged misconduct.

In a self-led press conference on Thursday, Merkel called the investigation an attempt to discredit him and punish voters for electing him.

“There’s a lot of things in this document that are obviously designed to paint me as being a bad person or a bully or a disrupter,” Merkel said in the press conference. “It’s very easy to say a lot without backing it up. The hard truth underneath all that fluff is that I’ve been cleared of any legal wrongdoing.”

The investigation included interviews with 22 witnesses: 13 females and nine males. Each sitting councilmember agreed to participate except Merkel, who opted out after the investigator denied his attempt to bring a supporter and record video of the meeting.

While the investigation found Merkel violated the city’s governance manual by engaging in a pattern of hostile behavior, there was no evidence of gender discrimination.

“Witnesses described interactions with Merkel in which he belittled or berated them,” a city release stated. “While the investigation found the instances credible, the report concluded that Merkel’s actions did not constitute gender discrimination because his interactions with both male and female staff were similar.”

The investigation’s findings highlighted several instances in which witnesses said Merkel was out of line, some of which occurred before Merkel was elected.

While on the campaign trail in the fall of 2023, Merkel placed signs in a roundabout and median, which the city said was against the rules because the obstacles were traffic control devices. Following a disgruntled phone call, Merkel went to city hall.

According to the investigation’s findings, after being asked to remove the signs, Merkel “raised his voice and became irate.” Witnesses described Merkel as yelling when one tried to defuse the situation before others came to help, pulling him into a nearby room where he was still heard from outside.

Merkel became “confrontational” and “very loud and boisterous,” the witness alleged in the investigation’s findings.

After his election, Merkel’s behavior continued to play out at City Hall. Witnesses said it’s not uncommon for him to announce his presence when entering the building, often loudly stating that he was there to “cause trouble,” “cause a fight,” or “cause chaos,” according to the investigation’s findings.

Before entering one city council meeting, Merkel declared, “I’m here to be difficult.” While some witnesses noted the behavior as “disturbing and disrespectful,” others gave Merkel the benefit of the doubt, stating he might have just been trying to be funny, according to the investigation’s findings.

During another instance, Merkel asked a fellow councilmember to stay after a meeting to talk with him, but after almost everyone had left, Merkel blocked the doorway and started yelling in her face.

“I tried to leave. [Merkel] would not let me leave,” she said, according to the investigation’s findings. “He blocked the door, continued to yell at me, and I just kind of shut down.”

The councilmember told the investigator that when she tried to move toward the door, Merkel would position himself between them.

“When I would back up, he would back up with me, and then if I tried to go around him, he would move over to not let me,” she continued, according to the investigation’s findings.

Following the incident, city hall employees began walking the councilmember to her car when leaving the building, as does her husband when he’s there, according to the investigation’s findings.

In an interview with The Center Square on Friday, Merkel questioned the scope of the investigation. He said that if the inquiry was over a potential violation of the city’s harassment policy, then the investigation should have stopped when it found none.

Instead, Merkel said, the process went on to investigate violations of the governance manual’s expectation of respect and decorum, despite City Manager John Hohman previously telling Merkel that it’s not the staff’s role to enforce the governance manual.

Merkel said he plans to provide a written response to the investigation by the May 16 deadline.

“It is clearer than ever that this entire investigation has been nothing more than an ineffective councilmember and city bureaucrat who have been plotting since before I came to office to fight my valid questions about how the city conducts business with a conspiracy to besmirch me in order to protect their jobs at elected positions,” Merkel said on Thursday.

According to the city’s news release, Merkel will continue to work in a separate area from other staff while at city hall.