As the Bellevue City Council deliberates on selecting a new member to join that body, an email accusing one of the candidates of misdeeds made its way to City Hall.
Janice Zahn, one of the finalists for the open position on the council and also a candidate for open positions this November, is an employee of the Port of Seattle. She has been accused of taking an illegal payment from her employer.
Former council candidate Renay Bennett sent the email, which used public information.
Zahn said the accusation was unfair and misleading.
“I found the email quite disturbing,” she said. “I want to set the record straight. I was just as surprised as everybody else [by the state investigation]. It was voted on at a public meeting by the Port Commission. I am not a member of that Port executive team and I did not ask for the payment.”
In 2015, Zahn — an assistant engineering director of construction with the Port — along with 641 other employees received a one-time payment as the Port’s Chief Executive Officer Ted Fick made changes to the salary and hours worked for employees.
Bennett’s email was passed around at City Hall, and Zahn believes the misinformation might have an impact on her chances.
“There are several good and qualified candidates to choose from, however, there appears to be a question surrounding one,” the email reads. “As you are aware, the Port of Seattle CEO recently resigned amid investigation by the State Auditor’s Office regarding illegal payments to Port employees. Public records name Janice Zahn as one of the employees that received one of these payments. While it is not known what the final outcome of this investigation will be, a cloud of uncertainty and the potential for problems down the road would appear to be a choice fraught with unknowns.”
The State Auditor’s Office found that Fick and the Port Commission gave the payments inappropriately according to the state constitution, but that the onus of the improper payments rests on upper management and not with the employees.
Zahn received $10,911.10 in the one-time payment, commensurate with 7 percent of her yearly salary. All told, the port paid approximately $4.8 million to those 642 employees. Fick resigned amidst the controversy.
State Auditor Pat McCarthy said the findings were the sign of a healthy independent review system.
“This issue came to light as a result of a careful review of the actions taken by the Port,” she said. “It was discovered and addressed, and we’re working with the Port to ensure improvements are made.”
Zahn said she hopes the council and voters will take the findings into consideration when it comes to the council positions.
“I value transparency, integrity and accountability,” she said. “I wasn’t part of the leadership team who made that decision. I’d like to think that the council will look at the actual facts. Information needs to be validated. There are many items portrayed as fact when they are not.”
One council member said the claims in the email struck her as motivated by something beyond the governance of Bellevue.
“I was talking to someone yesterday about [Councilmember] Conrad Lee’s Legislature race long ago, and there were similar accusations made, accusations of him being some sort of swindler,” Councilmember Lynne Robinson said. “And just like Conrad, Janice is a very good resident of Bellevue with a good history of community service. I wonder if things might have something to do with her race.”
Zahn is of Chinese descent and was born in Hong Kong before emigrating to the United States more than 40 years ago. Robinson said she asked the person who sent the email who that person would recommend instead. They replied with two of the white, male candidates’ names.
“It would have been better if she had said she didn’t have a preference. If you’re trying to advance one person’s cause at the expense of another, that’s problematic to me,” Robinson said. “Without the good explanation of the details, I would say the email could definitely have an impact on the selection.”
Zahn said her record should stand for itself without “unfair” accusations.
“I am not a political being,” she said. “I believe in the mission of giving back. I have served many years at the Port. We set a higher bar than the regular Joes at private companies. I don’t accept lunches or gifts from contractors.”
The council will select a member of the council before the end of February.