Saying “more serious action must be taken” regarding sexual harassment allegations against city manager Yost Zakhary, Woodway City Council members will meet again Friday to discuss Zakhary’s employment.
The council met in executive session for almost two hours in a special called meeting Monday night, but took no action because the agenda item called for discussion only.
Among the items the council reviewed was a lawsuit filed by a Woodway city employee, whose sexual harassment claim led to Zakhary’s resignation as public safety director last week.
The lawsuit, filed Monday by 17-year employee Sandra Bickel, alleges Zakhary created a hostile work environment with persistent inappropriate comments and behavior.
Zakhary, who started working as a dispatcher for the Woodway Public Safety Department in 1979, resigned as chief March 19 and acknowledged making inappropriate comments to Bickel. Zakhary was appointed chief in 1985 and was named joint public safety director and city manager in 2001.
While Woodway City Council members accepted his resignation, effective April 11, they allowed him to remain city manager and continue to draw his annual salary of $190,000. Zakhary has been on medical leave recently, recuperating from triple-bypass heart surgery.
Zakhary did not attend Monday night’s meeting. City officials said he was attending a meeting in Galveston of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, of which Zakhary is a past president.
City council members, including Mayor Donald Baker, declined additional comment beyond their prepared statement. Zakhary did not return phone calls Monday.
Since Zakhary’s resignation, Bickel, communications supervisor for the public safety department, has hired the Johnson, Hobbs, Squires Law Firm to represent her in the sexual harassment lawsuit. And at least one former city employee has come forward with allegations of her own about alleged inappropriate behavior by Zakhary during her tenure with the city.
Waco attorney Ryan Johnson, who represents Bickel with attorney Scott James, said Bickel was disappointed that the council left Zakhary in the city manager’s position, where he still has control over all city employees.
Zakhary, whom the lawsuit said refers to himself as “the king of Woodway” among city employees, has been in contact with Bickel since his resignation last week, Johnson said.
Bickel also is disappointed that Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who represents the city, only acknowledged in a brief statement last week the inappropriate comments Zakhary made, with no reference to unwanted and inappropriate physical contact by Zakhary.
“We intend to hold Mr. Zakhary, and any city of Woodway public officials enabling or protecting him, accountable for Zakhary’s sexual misconduct and to vigorously protect the rights of Ms. Bickel and all the other female public servants who are or have been victims of sexual harassment or assault while employed by the city of Woodway,” Johnson said.
The lawsuit alleges Zakhary has “permeated” city offices with “ongoing lewd, inappropriate and sexualized comments often directed at specific female employees,” and that he “engaged in sexualized, unwanted touching of multiple female employees and/or former employees.”
The lawsuit also alleges Zakhary has ridiculed female employees about their weight, breast size and physical appearance and has taken unauthorized photos of at least one female employee’s body parts with his cellphone and has shown the photos to others, according to Johnson.
“Multiple female employees and/or former employees have felt distraught, humiliated, embarrassed, scared and physically nauseous due to a pattern of sexual misconduct by Yost Zakhary,” Johnson said in a statement. “The victims have been rendered helpless and afraid because the perpetrator was both the director of Woodway Public Safety Department and the city manager of Woodway.”
Bickel alleges in her complaint to the city that Zakhary grabbed her ponytail, jerked her head back and forth several times and said, “Oh, yeah, you know that’s what your boyfriend likes” at a Woodway barbecue fundraiser in September.
The comment was made in front of several witnesses, including one who “attempted to stop the chief’s movement and tried to smooth my hair,” according to the complaint obtained by the Tribune-Herald through the Texas Public Information Act.
“This particular incident made me sick to my stomach for several days as I couldn’t face (the witness) at work or imagine what she thought of me,” Bickel wrote in her complaint. City officials redacted the names of witnesses in Bickel’s complaint, but an internal investigation by Dixon and acting Public Safety Director Bret Crook found witnesses who corroborated Bickel’s allegations, Dixon said.
Bickel describes another alleged incident at a meeting in September in which Zakhary said in a loud voice in front of other supervisors and city administrators that he had a question for Bickel. He asked if he should say it at the meeting or ask her later in private.
He repeated it several times, when someone “stated emphatically ‘No’,” the complaint alleges. “Do not ask him what the question was in front of everyone.”
After the meeting, Bickel asked Zakhary what he was talking about and he said if she lost any more weight, she would need a “boob job.” He said she would need one to make them bigger, the complaint claims.
In another alleged incident a month later, Zakhary asked Bickel to walk with him to his car. She said Zakhary complimented her on her weight loss and said she was looking good.
“He added, ‘Then again, I haven’t seen you naked or anything.’ I was caught off-guard by that comment and again nervously laughed it off. I made a comment, which I don’t remember, as I was uncomfortable and didn’t really know what to say or do at that point,” she said.
Another incident alleged in Bickel’s complaint occurred during a going-away party for an employee, she said. She was walking toward the dispatch office toward the training room when Zakhary yelled for her to come to the front office. She said he was giving a “shoulder rub” to another female employee and reportedly said, “See, this is how you treat a good employee that I like.”
She walked away, but Zakhary called her back to the front office and made a comment in front of the other employee about how she likes “being spanked.” She said she walked away and Zakhary called her back and said he was just playing.
“Again, I walked away. I was given the advice of next time he made any comments to not acknowledge it and just walk away. This is the first incident where I was able to take the advice and it seemed to work,” Bickel wrote.
Bickel’s complaint said other city employees who work for the city have noticed how Zakhary treated her. Other women have told her they are “scared for me and don’t want me to be alone with the chief.” A male employee whose name was redacted told Bickel she should report what was happening, saying, “We all see that the Chief is targeting you.”
“I was surprised to hear that he and others have noticed what has been going on,” she wrote. “I assumed since nothing was ever said that they didn’t see or hear anything. (The man) said, ‘No, they have been seeing it,’ and he didn’t understand why I have been targeted.”
Bickel said she wanted to report it, but was confused about to whom to report it. Zakhary was police chief and city manager at the time.
“Who is going to believe me? I was still in fear of losing my job if I report this about the chief. I am afraid that I will be treated differently and eventually be in a very hostile work environment that anything I do would be marked against me,” Bickel wrote. “I truly thought I can just ignore what has happened and pray when he comes back that it would stop. But deep down I don’t believe it would stop.”
A former employee wrote an anonymous statement complaining about Zakhary last week. Her comments were not an official complaint, but they were forwarded to Dixon, the attorney who represents the city, and will be presented to council members Monday night.
Here is the complete statement issued by the Woodway City Council Monday night: “After receiving and reviewing additional information, the feeling of the council is that more serious action must be taken. However, because there is no action item for tonight’s meeting, a meeting for Friday will be scheduled by a posting tomorrow morning to address the matter of Mr. Zakhary’s employment. The city of Woodway and its city council support the city’s employees and will not tolerate inappropriate conduct.”