EVERETT — With questions swirling about how complaints of sexual harassment within the planning department were handled, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon Tuesday called for a review of county workplace practices.
The move came after revelations that former planning director Craig Ladiser and some of the men on his staff had been accused repeatedly of sexually charged office antics. The in-house investigator, who reports directly to Reardon’s deputy executive, found the complaints did not merit action.
Ladiser lost his job in August. He was fired after an outside law firm’s investigation found that he drunkenly exposed himself to a woman during a building industry golf tournament in Redmond.
Reardon used Tuesday’s press release to call for a special prosecutor to investigate the county’s sexual harassment policies and procedures.
“I want to ensure that the process in place is fair, complete and above reproach,” Reardon said in his prepared statement, issued after 5 p.m.
Spokesman Christopher Schwarzen insisted that questions be submitted first before Reardon would be interviewed. Reardon did not respond to a voicemail left on his Blackberry from a reporter seeking comment.
If Reardon’s request to hire a special deputy prosecutor is approved by county attorneys, the review could begin next week.
The current system for filing workplace grievances isn’t unique among local governments and is meant to be independent.
Some have their doubts.
“What every one of these has in common is they want to maintain some control over the outcome,” said Everett attorney Mitch Cogdill, an expert on labor law in Snohomish County. He’s represented public-sector labor unions and employers for 40-plus years.
An ideal system would be truly independent, Cogdill said. The state Human Rights Commission might be a worthy alternative, except it doesn’t have enough funding for experienced investigators or thorough investigations, he said.
Snohomish County’s Equal Employment Opportunity investigator, Mark Knudsen, is an attorney with 30 years of experience. Knudsen’s $101,000 salary comes from Reardon’s office budget.
Knudsen reports findings to Deputy Executive Mark Soine, an attorney and Reardon’s second in command.
Appeals of Knudsen’s decisions go to Soine.
“There’s never, ever any real effective, independent appeals process,” Cogdill said. “It goes to somebody in house and that’s it.”
Workers also can file complaints with the state Human Rights Commission and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Bob Drewel, Snohomish County executive from 1991 to 2003, said the system was an effective way to look into complaints. Drewel said he placed the harassment investigator under the executive branch to give it more stature and authority.
“Our purpose was to make sure that people had confidence in the office, and I believe that they did,” he said.
Other counties and municipal governments have different ways of handling workplace allegations, though the investigators might still appear beholden to the county administration.
Like most private businesses, Pierce County for the most part uses the human resources director and a human resources specialist in discrimination and harassment complaints. Last year, they handled 23 cases, specialist Martha Keogh said.
In Snohomish County, Knudsen can investigate only when complaints relate to race, color, sex, religion, marital status, national origin, age, sexual orientation, citizenship, veteran’s status or disabilities.
Between 2006 and 2009, the county Equal Employment Opportunity office received five complaints about the planning department, all found unsubstantiated. During that period, Knudsen fielded 66 complaints countywide.
In one instance, a woman who worked at the planning department reported, among other things, that Ladiser had created a “sexist environment.” Follow-up interviews turned up several allegations about the department’s deputy director, but Knudsen did not follow up because by that time the man had already left the county. A public records search by The Herald of the deputy planning director’s work e-mail found that he sent several raunchy messages in late 2008 and early 2009, including pictures of topless women.
Knudsen didn’t lead the investigation that cost Ladiser his job.
That work was done by Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, the same law firm that Reardon now wants to hire to examine the county’s sexual harassment investigations.
The county spent about $12,500 for attorney Linda Walton’s investigation. Walton’s practice focuses on labor law, including workplace harassment.
Hiring the lawyer gave the county the option of protecting the results of the Ladiser investigation as confidential attorney-client work product, said Tad Seder, the county’s assistant chief civil deputy prosecutor.
The expectation from the outset, however, was that the case eventually would become public.
“We didn’t know what the results were going to be but we wanted a high level of (public) confidence in the findings,” Seder said.
The Ladiser investigation could have been conducted by the county’s own harassment investigator, but the circumstances weren’t a good fit because the alleged misconduct didn’t target a county worker, Seder said.
Scott North contributed to this report.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is how Snohomish County handled the termination of former planning director Craig Ladiser:
June 24: While in a drunken stupor at a golf tournament, Ladiser exposes himself to a woman who works as a building industry lobbyist. Ladiser was a guest of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. The group covered his $130 entry fee.
June 29: Ladiser sends the woman an e-mail apologizing for his conduct and promising to resign. Later that day he meets with his boss, county executive director Brian Parry. They discuss Ladiser entering treatment. Ladiser e-mails county planners, saying he is going on leave because of an “unexpected family emergency.”
July 8: The woman Ladiser exposed himself to writes County Executive Aaron Reardon to report what happened on the golf course.
July 9: Deputy Executive Mark Soine meets with the woman. County prosecutors hire the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie to conduct an independent investigation. Ladiser is placed on administrative leave.
July 20: Reardon’s spokesman Christopher Schwarzen explains Ladiser’s absence from his job by providing The Herald with Ladiser’s e-mail that said he was addressing a family emergency.
Aug. 19: The investigating attorney submits her report.
Aug. 20: Soine terminates Ladiser’s employment.
Aug. 25: In response to reporters’ questions, county officials acknowledge Ladiser was fired.