In January, the majority of the staff at the Seattle Arts and Culture Department (ARTS) sent a letter to the Mayor’s Office detailing an extensive list of complaints about the leadership of Interim Director royal alley-barnes, a controversial Mayor appointee, and Deputy Director Maritza Rivera, a longtime City employee and current city council candidate.
The staff members see their letter as a success, given that the Mayor held an open search process for the newly appointed permanent director, Gülgün Kayim. Building off that momentum, the staff decided to unionize to continue improving their workplace.
Even though past and present employees tipped off City officials about their problems with ARTS leadership, Rivera could gain even more power in the City if she wins her election for the open City Council seat in District 4. The workers’ letter certainly does not read as a rousing endorsement of her management capabilities.
The letter, signed by 26 out of 40 of ARTS staff at the time, highlighted three main complaints. Leadership disregarded City policies, created a toxic work environment, and hindered staff’s ability to do its work and deliver for the community, the signatories alleged. The workers informed the Ombud’s Office of their concerns in a meeting with 19 current and three former staff members in attendance.
In an email, Rivera said she never saw the letter, but she doubts it actually represents the views of 26 employees. The letter did not name the workers for fear of retaliation, but an email thread confirmed that 26 ARTS employees signed off on it.
Rivera denied all the letter’s claims, all other accusations leveled against her below, and she implied that some workers just could not take the heat.
“Director alley-barnes was determined to restore high expectations and work standards. It was clear there are many dedicated and talented employees at the Office of Arts and Culture who responded positively to Director alley-barnes' changes, but it was also evident there were a few who were disgruntled by them,” she wrote.
Under the first 15 months of alley-barnes and Rivera’s leadership, 15 workers, or about one-third of the staff, left the ARTS department. According to the letter, half of those people were people of color and four were Black. Since the employees sent the letter, five more staff members have left the department.
When The Stranger asked Rivera about these departures during a mid-June endorsement meeting, she said, “I don’t think that’s actually accurate.” According to emails obtained in a public records request at least 13 workers left the department in 2022.
In a follow-up email, she said turnover is normal when new directors come in. And in another email, she said some people left due to the “natural expiration of temporary positions” and “natural attrition.”
Alley-barnes did not respond to The Stranger’s request for comment.
Rivera’s management style may have contributed to the toxic work environment that drove so many workers away. Several workers recalled a pattern of defensive, hostile, and condescending interactions with Rivera. They did not want to publish specific instances for fear of retaliation, but one worker said they feared the ego boost of winning an election would make her an even worse boss for her council staff.
A few workers described Rivera’s supervision style as full of misplaced priorities, micro-management, and lack of strategic thinking. The workers claim that her poor management delayed contract approval and payments to programs that serve marginalized communities. Several workers said they do not trust her with taxpayer money.
Workers also said Rivera held an intense respect for hierarchy, deferring to alley-barnes without pushback and expecting the same from those who worked under her. Some believe that loyalty to authority helped her “fail up” the ranks at the City.
All these concerns considered, some former workers told The Stranger Rivera was not fit to lead, and if she got to, she would likely fall directly in line with whoever held the most power.
One worker said, “It's just very scary to see somebody who has already shown that they will align themselves to where the power is, and use their positionality and their training as a lawyer to just back them up without considering the perspective of anyone with less power than her.”