Guest Editorial: The Cost of the County Employment Investigations

I look at the Snohomish County Council agendas regularly. Why? Because it can give you insight as to what is going on in your government and possible decisions that may impact your quality of life or pocket book. I am a firm believer that you need to check in and watch what is happening so that you can have a voice in the process. Today I noticed something that caused me to shake my head and roll my eyes.

Take a look at the agenda for today’s Council Administration Committee meeting. At first glance it may seem innocuous enough, but you will notice that there is an item under D. vi which states:
“Motion 15-372, authorizing the County Executive to sign a professional services contract amendment for Equal Employment Office investigation services with Amy Stephson (ECAF 4887) (For re-assignment from Finance and Economic Development Committee to Committee of the Whole. Proposed action is to move to General Legislative Session, September 30th for action.)”

Now before we get too far, here’s a little Council Committee vs. General Legislative Session (GLS) 101. Before the County Council approves anything it goes to Committee. There are several different committees for different purposes and the agendas and proceedings are all on their website. All council members attend and at this level they are briefed on the various possible motions and ordinances proposed by the various departments.

Each councilperson is assigned to chair a specific committee and the others are then members. This affords council the opportunity to look into these proposals prior to the public hearing or GLS. So, today this ECAF (Executive Council Approval as to Form) is being presented to do 2 things. One is to extend the end date of a contract for services; and the other is to increase the total dollar amount for that contract to $30,000.00. This, like I said seems innocuous, but like everything else in Snohomish County, it is the back story that provides the real issue.

As many of you may recall, back in February 2010, during the time of Aaron Reardon as County Executive, the EEO Investigator Mark Knudsen resigned amid scrutiny of his handling of employee complaints regarding sexual harassment complaints by planning managers. (This was all brought to light after the Director of Planning & Development Services, Craig Ladiser, was terminated after he drunkenly exposed himself, amongst other things, to a woman at a golf tournament he was attending sponsored by the MasterBuilders Association.) The Executive then hired Linda Watson of the Seattle based Perkins-Coie to “review the county’s policies and procedures for worker complaints.” The contract amount was $12,000.00, and incidentally she also investigated Ladiser regarding his conduct.

During this time, it was discovered that there were a few EEO complaints that had languished to the point where it was decided to hire outside investigators. Two of these complaints were from within the Public Works Department. There were two separate investigators hired for these complaints. Both complaints involved employees of color. A male employee who worked within the TES (Transportation and Environmental Services) division of Public Works had his complaint investigated by Marcella Fleming Reed of the MFR Law Group of Mill Creek. That investigation totaled in the neighborhood of $115,000.00. The other investigation was in the Road Maintenance division with the complaint made by a female Road Maintenance Worker at the Cathcart shop. That investigation was conducted by Daphne Schneider of Daphne R. Schneider & Associates in Seattle. She received around $29,000 for her investigation.

The reason I bring these two investigations up is to provide some context. Now, these most likely are not the only investigations in Public Works, and the agenda for the Council Administration Committee today acknowledges that.

Since the departure of Mark Knudsen there have been multiple individuals tasked with the job of conducting EEO investigations. These investigations are for the purpose of determining whether or not there has been any violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. More commonly people refer to these complaints as sexual harassment/discrimination although it’s actually broader than that but those are the most common complaints.

The ECAF noted today is for yet another investigation within Public Works based upon harassment and discrimination of a protected class. Specifically it states:
“Amendment to Agreement between Snohomish County and Amy Stephson (the “Contractor”) for Equal Employment Office (“EEO”) investigation services regarding complaints of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the Public Works Department, Road Maintenance Division.”

So this begs the question. . What is going on in the Road Maintenance division and why? Inside sources state that the issues that were identified in the Schneider investigation continue. While there was a report done, it is generally known that the issues go far beyond those written words and that the culture at the Cathcart shop is to continue to isolate and harass protected classes and that inappropriate behaviors there go unchecked, and extend beyond issues investigated by the EEO which we will report on later. For now the salient questions are:

1. Why is an outside investigator conducting the EEO investigation when the County has their own EEO Officer/Investigator?
2. Why has Public Works Road Maintenance not addressed the discrimination/harassment issues and ended the behavior?
3. How many EEO investigations have been conducted internally?
4. What steps has Public Works taken to address the previous alleged behavior and what was that outcome?
5. Who is accountable?

When Mark Knudsen left Snohomish County as the EEO Investigator they hired Chris Katahira to fill that role. He was originally hired as a temporary replacement, but ultimately got the job. Interestingly enough, Mr. Katahira was an employee of the MFR Law Group. Mr. Katahira then left and the job after a little over a year and in 2011 the job went to Stacey Allen. He was hired as an HR Analyst, Senior EEO Investigator and stayed until 2014. Upon his departure they hired a temporary (Ashley Tam) and created a new job description and title – EEO Officer/EEO Investigator. (Bridget Clawson, the HR Director wore the hat of the EEO Officer since the departure of Knutsen, and no longer wanted to do so.) This position is management exempt with a salary range of $6230.20 to $8803.62 per month, while the previous job description paid $5940.74 – $7217.35 per month.

After a search the HR Director hired Ronda Brown to fill this new role. It seems that there may be a conflict of interest here having the role be both the Officer and the Investigator, however, since the county rarely, if ever finds for the employee I do not believe that was a consideration in crafting this new position.

The desire has been since the departure of Knutsen, to return to business as usual. . you know, move along, nothing to see here. But unfortunately for the County there are now more eyes on these roles than before, and thanks to information from those employees who want to see fairness in the processes, we can shed more light in what was previously a dark closet.

A quick search of the on-line documents available at the county shows the following:
MFR Law Group has been conducting investigations for the county since at least March 2010 and I have located information that shows costs for investigations by this firm has received authorizations totaling over $485,000. For Schneider & Associates almost $40,000, and now a contract with Stephson for $30,000. That totals $550,000 in about 5 year’s time and that’s most likely not the total costs. That is money that could go towards fixing roads, safety improvements and countless other things. Why has there not been any attention given to this? Why has the “regular” media turned a blind eye?

Questions need to be asked and answered and there needs to be some accountability and a hard look taken at why this has been allowed to continue. We will continue to unravel what we can, but you the tax payer need to ask questions yourselves. You have a right to know why we have a highly paid EEO Officer/Investigator and yet continue to hire outside investigators. You also have a right to know why we pay outside investigators at all. Think about it doesn’t this seem a bit like double dipping?