La Center releases report on workplace hostility allegations

Report debunks parts of 2013 memo from interim police chief

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter

Published:

 

The city of La Center released a report Thursday detailing a private investigator’s conclusions about allegations of hostility and harassment among top city administrators.

The investigation stemmed from a 37-page letter written in May by then-interim Police Chief Erin Nolan, who now works as a chief deputy for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. In the document, Nolan relays numerous accusations of impropriety — including nepotism, cronyism, discrimination and intimidation — that she’d heard from city employees.

Nolan sent the letter to Derek Bryan, a risk manager with the Association of Washington Cities. Bryan then commissioned Jim Webber, a private investigator from Kirkland, to look into the allegations.

Webber wrapped up his investigation earlier this month, essentially exonerating everyone mentioned in Nolan’s letter and declining to draw conclusions about cases where he said he didn’t find enough evidence. He reached the findings following interviews with 19 current and former city employees, including Nolan, Mayor Jim Irish, Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis and Finance Director Suzanne Levis.

Sarvis and Levis — who live together — found themselves at the center of much of the criticism in Nolan’s letter. According to the document, employees had concerns about the pair’s personal relationship and their influence over Irish.

Some complained that Sarvis privately made sexist remarks to his subordinates. Others said Levis was unresponsive and unprofessional in dealing with personnel issues.

Nolan also reported that the two used their collective power to control Irish, who an employee described as a “mellow guy.” But Webber dismissed the allegations.

Sarvis and Levis released a joint statement Thursday, saying Nolan’s letter amounted to malicious rumors. They said it cast a cloud over their reputations in the past year.

“While we waited for vindication, the letter and attending gossip made their way to the city’s unions, on to political campaign Facebook pages and were consistently featured in the press,” they wrote.

Nolan said she wrote the letter to “restore the health” of the city’s human relations policies and correct shortcomings in the city’s ability to collectively bargain. It was released less than a year after Pasco-based Dynamic Pathways wrote a performance audit criticizing the management of the La Center Police Department.

Nolan also stated that the letter was based on observations, experiences and complaints from city employees. Many of the allegations stemmed from anecdotes and secondhand accounts of incidents that may have occurred years ago, Nolan wrote.

Nolan declined to comment on the specifics of Webber’s report, but she said she stands by her letter.

“I think the entire circumstances are unfortunate for the city,” she said. “I think my original document speaks for itself.”

In a news release sent out Thursday morning, Mayor Jim Irish said he’s satisfied with Webber’s conclusions and he hopes the city can move on from the acrimony.

“His investigation discredits the contents of the Nolan document, is critical of its release and the methodology used,” Irish said. “The investigator makes it clear that no policies of the city were violated by either one of the directors, or any other La Center employee.”