SeaTac’s ex-city manager denies asking for “tactical map” of Muslim residents

Even in the context of the American right’s current Islamophobia, this is over the top.

James “Donny” Payne served as interim city manager of SeaTac, Washington, for only a few months — from January to April of 2016. But during his brief tenure, Payne quickly became controversial. Staff were uncomfortable with his “militaristic style.” City employees said he seemed fixated on “security issues.” A complaint against him by the city’s human resources manager led to an investigation. He resigned because he couldn’t manage effectively after this, not as a consequence of the manager’s allegations, which he disputed.

Payne’s most controversial act was asking the city’s GIS coordinator to map the personal addresses of every Muslim living in SeaTac. Payne later claimed he only wanted to understand the city’s residents to better serve them. But at the time, he told others he wanted the information in order to “keep the peace.” He didn’t request similar information for other demographic groups. The investigation also found that he spoke to the police chief about “radicalized” Muslims, specifically in reference to SeaTac’s Somali and Eritrean communities. Payne also allegedly talked about “starting an ‘Americanization’ or ‘assimilation’ program for new immigrants,” according to an assistant city manager who quit shortly after Payne was hired.

Payne was hired by a political acquaintance who had just become mayor after his faction won control of SeaTac’s city council and fired the previous city manager. Payne had no prior municipal management experience. His background is managing Wendy’s restaurants and serving as a military officer. He’s a major in the Washington National Guard who served in Afghanistan and also served a brief stint as a Seattle cop.

More than anything, this appears to have been a hiring failure that was a product of political cronynism. An unqualified person was hired by newly elected politicians to manage a city government who got the job through connections. Payne’s attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants aren’t atypical of the nativistic elements of the American electorate, but don’t belong in municipal administration. I think there’s a question of whether Payne’s view of foreigners and Muslims is colored by his war experiences. He also appears to be struggling with transiting from living in a threat environment to stateside civilian society. As a Vietnam veteran, I know about this stuff; it took me years to make that adjustment.

Municipal management calls for politically and socially neutral professionals. The job requires them to respect and serve all city residents, including ethnic and religious minorities. SeaTac, which has a large East Africa-Somali community, isn’t a battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its residents aren’t ISIS, al Qaeda, or Taliban fighters lurking behind buildings with AK-47s and RPGs. They’re hardworking people with jobs, families, and dreams who pay taxes and are entitled to equal protection of the laws. They don’t deserve to be treated as potential terrorists, or as pins on a tactical map.

Mr. Payne has responded to this post (see his comment in the sidebar). He disputes the media’s portrayal of him. (Read the Seattle Times report here.) Certainly, we want to be fair about this. If he’s not the dolt who dreamed up the “tactical map,” or used that term to describe pedestrian GIS data (if that’s all it was), then for sure we want to exonerate him. We also ought to know who did do it, if he didn’t, as it seems clear that someone at SeaTac city hall screwed up. It also should be considered that SOP in such cases is to blame the guy at the top, which is what everyone (including me) did in this case. Unhappily for Payne, that’s him.

The SeaTac flap was investigated by an outside lawyer from a reputable national law firm. There’s a link to the 14-page investigation report in the Seattle Times article. The investigator interviewed 21 witnesses and reviewed documents and emails. He denies the investigation’s findings. Ultimately, it is for readers to decide who to believe.

05232016-seatac01-780x944I want to make clear that by writing this piece I’m targeting the social illness of Islamophobia, not Mr. Payne as an individual. If I’m making an example of him, it’s for that purpose, and not to pick on him in any personal way. This blog provides the opportunity to post comments, and he has every right to tell his side of the story in the comments. This article will be revised again if new information comes my way that justifies further revision.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Hi there,

    You can’t believe everything you read in the media. Here is the ACTUAL request I gave to my GIS person after she tried to summarize our initial conversation:

    ” The basis of this request is to better understand our community?s composition, in order to provide more effective governance. A graphic depiction of this composition using census data will help inform future decisions in pursuit of that goal.

    A few changes I would like for you make on your draft document please?

    * it should read “Data driven resource allocation. Intent: how to better provide for our diverse citizens, particularly if/when they are physically clustered in an area.

    * I don’t want to give anyone the impression we are trying to single out a particular religion in the request. I was only using those as examples for you. I could have just as easily said Irish, males, Protestant, over 45 yea. We want comprehensive info on ALL aspects.

    * To be clear, I am unaware any conflicts actually exist between our citizens. But if they do exist, i would like to ID those obvious areas which might have problems, based on historical record throughout the world.

    * I would not use the term “American ways.? Rather i would say “dominant culture.? intent: how to get more citizen involvement from those who may feel disenfranchised or disconnected with the dominant culture here. Encourage inclusion.

    * Remove the word “tactical” please; Sounds too “military.” If it is a term-of~art uses for what I described, no problem. If there are other major religions (outside Christian/Muslim) in SeaTac of which there is a large representation, we should absolutely include those as well (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, etc). This will help us better understand our neighborhoods.

    * Do not use data generated from non-census sources (AJ McClure, Brookings, Highline SD). I want to use the most objective data sets, and those examples will likely introduce bias. Please remove from your strategy.”

    So, despite all the hoopla and implication of bias, I was just asking our GIS section to update outdated demographic products WE ALREADY HAD, by overlaying unbiased US Census data on a map of the city. That is all. A routine and legally-mandated request that most all City Managers do, which was turned into something sinister. The press characterizes that as “seeking racial profiles” using a “tactical map.” LOL. Please note, a “tactical map” was language the GIS person used in HER email to me, and I corrected her usage.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    Hello Mr. Payne,
    As the author of this article, I appreciate the opportunity to read your side of the story, and wish to thank you for the reasonable tone of your response. As someone who has taken a lot of bad press lately, it must be difficult for you to not feel angry about how you’ve been portrayed by the press and commentators such as myself, and the fact you didn’t go that route here is to your great credit. As a political commentator, I write about public figures and policy issues, often in a critical and sometimes acerbic manner. Public service is a fishbowl, and those who swim in it are considered fair game. Public officials routinely get so much criticism, some of it unfair, that it isn’t practical to defend themselves against most of it. They have to absorb it. I speak from experience, having worked in government myself. We’re all aware of what a “hot button” topic Muslims are, and how polarized public attitudes toward Muslims are. The implications of creating a “tactical map” consisting of the home addresses of Muslim residents are clear. Whoever dreamed up this idea, or attached this label to innocent demographic information, is a dolt. If this wasn’t your doing, and you insisted it wasn’t in your comment above, then you certainly should correct the record about it. I would be interested to know how you view people who think a “Muslim menace” lurks in their neighborshoods. I personally think such people are nuts, and I don’t hesitate to call them bigots. I’d suggest they seek mental health counseling. Finally, I want to close by saying that I would be delighted to find out that my article is wrong and you are a perfectly normal and sane individual who sees past stereotypes and judges others by the “content of their character” as Martin Luther King Jr. admonished us to do. But given that the issues were formally investigated by a reputable attorney from a major law firm, I think you have a certain burden of proof to meet in rebutting the investigative findings.

Your Comment