La Center councilors want topic out in open

Review of city department heads urged following report

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Erin Nolan's report on La Center

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Public meeting

■ What: La Center City Council meeting.

■ When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.

■ Where: City Hall, 214 E. Fourth St..

■ Agenda: City councilors plan to discuss a report, written by the city’s former interim police chief, critical of the city’s personnel policies.

Two La Center city councilors are leading the charge for an in-depth performance audit of department heads following the release two weeks ago of an internal report critical of how the city has handled personnel policies.

The report, written last spring by the city's former interim police chief Erin Nolan, details complaints from current city employees and a former employee about two department heads.

City Attorney Dan Kearns had declined to release the report, later leaked, citing attorney-client privilege and the potential that employees named in it would be considered whistle blowers under federal law. It will be the subject of a closed executive session at the end of Wednesday's city council meeting.

But Councilors Elizabeth Cerveny and Greg Thornton have said they don't want the discussion to remain behind closed doors. They plan to address the report directly during the council's open session.

"I would hope the general public would be interested in this," Cerveny said.

Wednesday's meeting is expected to take place in front of a full chamber of spectators. Former La Center City Councilor Bob Smith and the city's cardroom spokesman John Bockmier said they plan to attend.

They expressed surprise that the report had been kept under wraps for months and that, once released, Mayor Jim Irish had said he didn't plan to address the issues mentioned in it.

Nolan's report alleges that two department heads, Finance Director Suzanne Levis and Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis, created a hostile workplace and that Irish didn't act to curb it. The report alleges that the city is rife with cronyism and nepotism and questions the professionalism of Levis and Sarvis, who according to the report are involved in an "intimate relationship."

After it was leaked, 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 to The Columbian. "The bulk of the comments come from two current and one very disgruntled ex-employee."

Nolan, the chief civil deputy for the Clark County Sheriff's Office, handed the report to Kearns in May, after she'd completed her tenure as La Center's interim police chief.

Irish has since said the city will reevaluate its Personnel Policy Manual. He also disputed that he failed to correct workplace grievances, saying he hadn't received any complaints.

Cerveny and Thornton have called on the city to conduct annual independent audits of city departments for more than a year. Last summer, Pasco-based Dynamic Pathways completed an audit of the police department, which highlighted managerial deficiencies there.

They suggested similar audits be performed for the finance and public works departments.

They were frustrated Nolan's report wasn't made available to them, even after they requested copies of it. Instead, Kearns invited council members to review his copy of the report, Cerveny said. She questioned why the city attorney wouldn't release the report to elected officials.

"We should have all come together to determine how it should be treated," she said, concluding that the situation has turned into "a mess."

Irish said the city has taken steps to independently evaluate department heads.

In April, Levis and Sarvis, the department heads at the center of Nolan's report, received "above average" marks on independent evaluations conducted by outside consultant The Prothman Company.

Despite being "above average," the reviews did underscore weaknesses. Low marks for Sarvis came from employees who said he didn't always encourage the sharing of ideas and was sometimes dismissive.

Other public employees criticized the public works department for fostering low morale.

Morale among city employees will only worsen because of the report's release, Levis said, reiterating that opinions in it were "highly editorialized by (Nolan) and unsubstantiated."