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Snohomish County settles discrimination case for $600,000

The lawsuit by a former HR manager said she was laid off in retaliation for confronting improper behavior in the planning department.

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
EVERETT — A former human resources manager with Snohomish County’s planning department has received about $600,000 in a settlement to resolve a discrimination lawsuit.
Debbie McPherson, 60, claimed she was prevented from doing her job and laid off in retaliation for confronting sexual harassment, age discrimination and other inappropriate behavior. She later took a different county job, for about half the pay, with the Board of Equalization.
In April she filed a nearly $1 million lawsuit accusing county leaders of failing to stop the sexually charged behavior.
“If there’s anything I have to say about my case is that it didn’t have to cost the county a penny if they would have addressed the issues in the beginning,” McPherson said. Thursday was her last day working for the county, as part of the settlement agreement. “I’m leaving so I don’t have to be entrenched in it.”
She also agree to release the county from all claims. The agreement was signed Sept. 22.
McPherson received a $500,000 payment Thursday, with $200,000 of that going to her law firm, Mann & Kytle PLLC of Seattle.
She also receives a little more than $63,000 in back pay for the planning job. She also will be paid through March 31 as though she were on administrative leave from her Board of Equalization job.
McPherson’s suit blamed three former top figures in County Executive Aaron Reardon’s administration for allowing the planning department’s rampant misconduct.
She worked there while it was headed by former director Craig Ladiser, who was fired by Reardon last year. Ladiser’s ouster came after he rubbed his bare genitals on a female building-industry lobbyist at King County golf course. In August, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges stemming from that incident. He claimed he was so drunk he doesn’t remember what happened.
McPherson’s complaint referred to Ladiser and the other men who ran the planning department as “the Harley Club” and describes a culture of “excessive drinking and motorcycle riding with male managers.” It said that managers gave preferential treatment to other men, mocked disabled employees and ranked the looks of female employees.
Though McPherson’s suit didn’t accuse Ladiser of perpetrating the most offensive of the acts, it did accuse him of failing to discipline those who did.
One instance recounted in the lawsuit claimed that a female customer at the county was grabbed by a planning department manager while using a copy machine. When confronted after that incident, the manager who grabbed the woman said “I thought it was an employee,” court papers said.
The suit also accused former county harassment investigator Mark Knudsen of not adequately looking into employee complaints. It called the county’s sexual harassment investigations a “black hole.”
Knudsen resigned in February, just ahead of an outside review of his job performance. That review found shoddy record-keeping and sometimes years passing before he would respond to employees about their concerns.
Former Deputy Executive Mark Soine, in an e-mail to all county employees, later took blame for not doing a better job of overseeing Knudsen’s work. Soine also managed the top executive in Reardon’s cabinet who oversaw the planning department. Soine announced his own resignation in April.
“Soine knew or should have known of the misconduct” in the planning department, McPherson’s lawsuit contended.
Her case settled, McPherson now plans to leave Snohomish County where she had worked in county government for nearly 30 years. She said she’s moving to Nevada to take a human resources position with a Las Vegas gaming company.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465;

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