Racism complaint lodged by Denney juvenile-corrections workers

EVERETT — Three black men who work as Snohomish County juvenile-corrections employees have accused some of their co-workers of orchestrating a racially motivated smear campaign against them.

One of the men who lodged the complaint is Ron Gipson, an Everett city councilman who has worked as a Denney Juvenile Justice Center corrections officer since the 1990s.

Joining Gipson in the racism charge are two juvenile-corrections supervisors: Luther Weathersby and Ashley Thomas. Bellevue attorney Victoria Vreeland sent the county a letter on their behalf.

“It is clear that there is an orchestrated attempt by several employees to try to get rid of these employees and to seriously damage their personal and professional reputations,” Vreeland wrote.

The county received the letter Feb. 18.

It arrived on the heels of accusations about physical and sexual harassment brought by three female employees against Gipson and other unnamed juvenile-corrections staff.

In a Feb. 10 damage claim, the women alleged a pattern of misconduct by managers, supervisors and co-workers. Gipson is the only one identified by name, and no specific episodes are described.

The women are asking for $450,000 each in damages, plus attorney’s fees. A claim is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a public agency.

Gipson last month called the allegations “absolutely untrue.”

The Denney juvenile-corrections staff includes five supervisors and 46 officers, said Bob Terwilliger, the administrator who oversees Snohomish County’s juvenile and superior courts. All of the five supervisors are male. Two of them — the men involved in the racism complaint — are black. Two others are white, one is Hispanic.

For most of the past year, the juvenile-corrections officers have included 33 men and 13 women, Terwilliger said. Of the men, 20 are white; nine, including Gipson, black; two Hispanic; one Native American; and one Asian-Pacific Islander. All of the women working as juvenile-corrections officers are white.

Weathersby and Thomas, in the attorney’s letter, say they tried to register human resources complaints about insubordination and disrespect among rank-and-file officers. Some of it, they claim, was related to their race.

“There has been no investigation or resolution of any of these issues,” their attorney’s letter says.

Terwilliger said he’s well aware of the concerns about the chain of command, but not of racism.

“These were never discussed in terms of race,” he said.

The racism and sexual harassment accusations have surfaced at a time of conflict between staff, managers and the labor union that used to represent both.

Last year, Denney juvenile-corrections supervisors were part of a bloc that left the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The split is the subject of a pending decision from the Public Employment Relations Commission.

Gipson, as a non-supervisor, continues to be represented by the local AFSCME affiliate, where he’s made no secret about being disatisfied with their representation.

The personnel problems in the juvenile lockup came to a head on Jan. 21, when administrators placed Gipson and Weathersby on administrative leave.

Details come from Vreeland’s letter, which describes Gipson and Weathersby of being “publicly escorted out of the facility in front of subordinates and co-workers.”

The letter calls the scene “humiliating and unnecessary” as well as out-of-line with how managers have handled other workplace complaints.

County officials say the decision to put the men on paid administrative leave was based upon a complaint made before the womens’ sexual harassment claim landed on the county’s lap.

Vreeland asked that Gipson and Weathersby be returned to work immediately.

The lawyer also said the county needs to provide the accused men with more information about why they are under investigation. She also asked for a calculation of overtime pay that Weathersby and Gipson would’ve received if they were not placed on leave.

The attorney also raised questions about the credibility of one of the three women, writing that she’s “made unfounded similar reports against others in the past.”

The three women who brought the claim all have worked at Denney since the late 1990s.

Gipson was first elected to the Everett City Council in 1995 and is the longest-serving current member. His father, Carl Gipson, served on the City Council for 24 years, and was Everett’s first black city councilman.

Ron Gipson, in public life, has been reluctant to make an issue of race.

In November, he gave a speech about why he would support appointing a qualified man to a council vacancy over a qualified woman. He said that diversity takes different forms. He talked about how the city’s voters had been fair-minded in electing him and his father to more than 40 years in office, combined.

“There’s no racial bias,” he said. “You just elected a person because of who he or she is. Not because of the color of the skin or because of the gender.”

The racism allegations at Denney arrive during the tenure of County Executive John Lovick, the first African American to hold the county’s top administrative job. Denney, however, falls under the authority of the judicial branch of county government.

County officials have declined to comment on the situation at Denney.

The county has hired attorney Marcella Fleming Reed of Mill Creek to interview staff in an attempt to get to the bottom of the complaints, county spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. The contract is for $10,000, but is expected to go much higher.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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