Snohomish County tech chief fired after employee complaints

The IT director had been working from home since July, when complaints arose.

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s technology chief was fired Thursday after a workplace investigation found his treatment of staff failed to meet standards of “courteous and professional” behavior.

Trever Esko had been restricted to working from home since July after a woman, who had just quit her county IT job, made complaints to human resources. That prompted the county to hire an outside investigator.

Based on more than a dozen interviews, the investigator last week concluded Esko’s leadership had sapped employee morale. Some workers said they left, or considered leaving, because of the atmosphere. Several described him as “derogatory and demeaning,” prone to yelling and subjecting workers to harsh criticism.

The Daily Herald obtained a copy of the 12-page report Thursday through state public records laws.

The investigator deemed credible the former employee’s claims that Esko made unwelcome physical contact with her at work on three separate occasions — including allegedly tapping his foot against her backside when he walked into a meeting in early July.

The woman quit her county job as an IT planner after less than five months. She also accused Esko of intentionally bumping into her at a group meeting, and on a separate occasion brushing her hair with his hand as he walked by her cubicle.

Reached Thursday afternoon, Esko denied any physical contact.

“Here’s the problem: It’s hard to find a witness to a potential event that didn’t occur,” he said.

The other female employee in the room during the alleged foot-tapping incident didn’t recall it happening. However, another co-worker, who wasn’t in the meeting, told the investigator the woman recounted the incident to her immediately afterward and was extremely upset.

The woman agreed to an interview with The Daily Herald on Thursday. Ashley Agler, 30, said she left for a job in the private sector, even though she had her heart set on working in government.

“It’s really sad,” Agler said. “I stand by what I said about the department feeling toxic. There is a hard-working, great staff in that department that really deserves leadership of a higher caliber.”

County Executive Dave Somers hired Esko to head up the Department of Information Technology in February 2016, shortly after taking office. Before that, Esko led IT business services in King County.

In Snohomish County, Esko was overseeing an office of 86 employees and was set to earn $183,264 this year. He said he was proud of his efforts to rebuild trust with other departments. He noted that the county received a sixth-place national award this year for its use of technology, compared to similar-sized counties.

“I’m a resident of Snohomish County who really wants to see our government thrive and improve,” he said. “I’m saddened more than anything else by this outcome.”

Esko criticized the investigation’s scope, which he considers limited. He believes it would have reflected more favorably on him if it had queried more employees.

“I don’t want to comment on how people feel emotionally about their jobs and I don’t want to discount that,” he said. “I just wish more people were talked to who had different opinions about what was going on in IT.”

When the allegations surfaced in July, the county initially described Esko’s status as on paid leave. After that characterization was questioned, county spokesman Kent Patton clarified that the tech director had been ordered to work remotely during the investigation.

“None of the allegations suggested he couldn’t do his duties from home,” Patton said.

Somers made the decision to terminate Esko from his at-will position, saying he would seek new leadership to meet the department’s goals.

“For Snohomish County to most effectively serve our residents, we must have a supportive and productive work environment,” the executive’s prepared statement read.

The department’s deputy director, Lisa Hillman, will take over in the interim.

To conduct the investigation, the county hired Patrick Pearce from the Seattle law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace. The contract said the county would pay up to $20,000.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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