La Center mayor promises investigation

Independent probe to focus on leaked report

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Erin Nolan's report on La Center

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LA CENTER — Mayor Jim Irish on Wednesday night promised to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into a recently leaked report detailing alleged personnel problems within the city of La Center.

The report, written last May by the city's former interim Police Chief Erin Nolan, found that unless the city addressed the problems the city could be open to litigation. That's a claim the city disputes after reviewing the document with its attorneys.

Onlookers packed into a filled council chambers Wednesday to hear councilors briefly discuss the report. A longer council discussion of the report was scheduled to take place behind closed doors in an executive session later Wednesday.

Council members Elizabeth Cerveny and Greg Thornton have called on Irish, and other councilors, to address the report's conclusions -- that some past and present employees consider the city to be a hostile workplace. The city says the report was subject to attorney-client privilege and claims it was "leaked."

Meanwhile, Councilman Al Luiz suggested it might be time for La Center to look into hiring a city administrator to provide professional oversight. He added that he also considered the report to be a private matter.

"I am not interested in discussing the report in public," he said, "only in executive session."

That was a position shared by Irish, who was named in the report for not doing enough to address employee complaints.

In a testy exchange, Thornton questioned why Irish was "afraid" to address the report openly.

"I have no fear," Irish responded, "I'm not afraid of anything."

The city's investigation — into both the validity of the report, as well as how it was leaked — will be performed with the assistance of the Association of Washington Cities, Irish said.

The report alleges that two department heads — Finance Director Suzanne Levis and Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis — create a hostile and unprofessional workplace.

Staff members quoted in the report say there's little recourse when it comes to personnel matters because Levis also acts as the city's human resources liaison and is dating Sarvis.

Among the report's more salacious allegations: That Sarvis has a history of making remarks tinged by sexual overtones, including references to an employee's breasts and hips. And that he employed friends, including former Yacolt Mayor Joe Warren, by sidestepping the city's hiring practices. Staff members feel uneasy complaining about the behavior because of the personal relationship between Sarvis and Levis.

The report also alleges that Levis is not properly trained to prevent workplace harassment or discrimination and, on occasion, actively participated in it. Levis has denied the report's findings.

The city has pointed to other employee evaluations that have given Levis and Sarvis high marks.

In remarks to the council Wednesday, Nolan said she was dismayed the report became public but called on officials to restore credibility by looking into its findings.

"Shame on you," she said, directing her remarks to Irish. "Leadership is difficult."