Report alleges city of La Center a hostile workplace

Finance director calls write-up's comments 'untrue, unkind, unfair'

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

Updated: October 16, 2013, 9:19 AM

 
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Erin Nolan's report on La Center

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A recently leaked report alleging, among other things, that department heads in La Center city government foster a hostile workplace, won't lead to changes in personnel or policies, officials said Tuesday.

Despite the allegations — among them, that La Center is rife with "nepotism and cronyism" and fails to properly protect employees from harassment and discrimination — Mayor Jim Irish said the city has no plan to refine city policies or further investigate the allegations. He cites another report that finds the performance of department heads above average, as well as legal advice that the city does not face any increased risk of liability.

The 37-page report was written by former interim Police Chief Erin Nolan, the chief civil deputy for the Clark County Sheriff's Office, and sent to City Attorney Dan Kearns for review in May. It was completed after Nolan stepped down from her temporary position with La Center. The city has refused to release the report, citing attorney-client privilege, and it only recently made its way to the city council and the mayor, Irish said.

According to a copy of the report obtained by local media, Nolan wrote that she made the report to "restore the health" of the city's policies regarding human resources and correct deficiencies in its ability to collectively bargain.

Relying heavily on remarks from current and past employees, as well as Nolan's own recollection of events, the report paints a picture of a dysfunctional workplace. Drawing the brunt of the report's criticism are Finance Director Suzanne Levis and Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis, who, along with the police chief, are the city's department heads.

Nolan's report comes in stark contrast to two positive performance evaluations of Levis and Sarvis received in April by Issaquah-based consulting firm Prothman Co. Those reports, which also evaluated the department heads based partially on anonymous interviews with subordinates, were deemed "above average."

Kearns, along with third-party risk management attorneys, said that none of the report's allegations opened the city up to litigation, Irish said. Instead, it includes "items that …came up in 2003, 2004 (and) 2010, but were never brought up until this report was written."

Report alleges tense workplace

According to Nolan's report, some of Sarvis' subordinates have complained privately of sexist remarks and have concerns about his personal relationship with Levis. The two share a residence.

Others complained that Levis was not responsive and was unprofessional in her handling of personnel issues. Levis' duties also require her to oversee the city's human resources functions.

Union representatives do not trust Levis and Sarvis, who "vehemently portray negotiations as a win/lose scenario," Nolan writes in her report.

In the report, an employee refers to Irish as a "mellow guy" and says Sarvis and Levis knew they could control him.

Levis said the report was a work of fiction, adding that neither she nor Sarvis were interviewed by Nolan.

"The untrue, unkind and unfair comments will only lead to tension and morale issues at work," Levis wrote in an email. "The bulk of the comments come from two current and one very disgruntled ex-employee."

Attorneys for the city have concluded that none of the allegations rise to the level of whistle-blower status, she said.

The report comes less than a year after Pasco-based Dynamic Pathways wrote a performance audit critical of management at the La Center Police Department. Former Police Chief Tim Hopkin retired following the release of the audit.

Irish questioned the timing of the release of Nolan's report. Hopkin is running for city council against incumbent Al Luiz, the mayor pro-tem.

Irish said he's upset it's been released.

"It has political ramifications," he said. "It smacks of something more than a concerned report."