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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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Records: Blanchette viewed with ‘fear, distrust’ by staff

She oversaw Children’s Justice Center working environment that was ‘significantly strained,’ HR investigation concludes

By , Columbian political reporter

Mary Blanchette, the former executive director of the Children’s Justice Center, was viewed with “fear and distrust” by staff and oversaw “a significantly strained working environment” that led to her ouster earlier this year, records obtained by The Columbian through a public records request reveal.

In September, the county council quietly approved an agreement with Blanchette that ended her employment overseeing the center, which provides support and advocacy for abused children. Under the agreement, Blanchette agreed not to sue and was given a one-time payment of $146,587. Both sides agreed not to discuss her separation, according to the agreement.

Records show that the Human Resources Department concluded that Blanchette didn’t harass any employees under the county’s definition of “harassment,” nor did she violate any policies. However, documents show Blanchette had an uneasy relationship with staff that didn’t improve after the center hired an outside executive coach.

“Her desire for control has resulted in a workplace where she is seen as punitive,” a county HR report concluded. “Given the feedback received over the course of this investigation, it would appear that Mary lacks self-awareness regarding her leadership and communication style.”

Pat Jollota, who helped found the CJC and is chair of a nonprofit that supports it, said she heard about problems at the center but still said Blanchette did “an incredible job.”

“I’m sure being as single-minded as she was, she could be abrasive,” Jollota said. “Once she set out to accomplish a task, she was focused in on it. The woman is such a fine person. This has broken my heart.”

A March report summarizing HR’s investigation describes complaints from the center’s staff that Blanchette bred conflict, contributed to high turnover, was controlling and demeaning toward employees and gave false information to the board, specifically that the center wasn’t accredited.

Driving demand

The report describes an incident wherein Randi Buker-Gay, an office assistant at the center who filed a complaint in December, was instructed to deliver water to an event but was unable to after her car was rear-ended.

“Mary called Randi four times asking why Randi couldn’t drive,” the report reads. “Randi explained to her that her trunk was smashed. Mary told Randi to put the water in the front of her car. Randi reported that Mary stated ‘get off your hinnies and bring it over here’. Randi was very shaken up from the accident and wasn’t in any shape to drive. Mary continued to call. On the last call, Randi asked Mary why she was trying to make her feel like she was wrong and why Mary was harassing her.”

Buker-Gay also complained that Blanchette belittled her and scolded her “like a child,” according to the report. Blanchette also told Buker-Gay not to speak to anyone above her “status of employment,” according to the report.

The report also states that Barb Kipp, a sergeant with the Vancouver Police Department, and Kim Christly, a forensic interviewer, complained during the HR investigation that Blanchette delayed purchasing needed cameras for interviews.

Christly filed an HR complaint in June 2015 alleging that Blanchette was rude, condescending, unsupportive and scolded her in front of others. Staff at the center described in the report an incident wherein employees had to pitch in for bikes for children’s Christmas presents after Christly forgot to order them. Christly and others stated that they believed the incident was retaliation from Blanchette against her, according to the report.

Sally Conaway, a legal secretary, also complained that Blanchette told her, “Don’t talk unless I tell you to talk” and repeatedly said, “I always get what I want, and I always win.”

‘Condescending tone’

The report states that Blanchette was “hostile” in her interview with HR and spoke in a “condescending tone.”

“It was hard to follow Mary in conversation as she was rambling and talking in circles,” the report reads. “Mary talked while looking at the floor, wall and ceiling. Mary mentioned several names that were irrelevant and kept stating words like challenging, communication, support. Mary also deflected frequently during the interview.”

Blanchette denied retaliating against Christly and was just being cautious about purchasing the cameras for interviews, according to the report.

In June, Blanchette, who has been in charge of the center since 2007, was sent a letter from County Chair Marc Boldt informing her she was being placed on administrative leave.

The letter states that the center’s board hired a third-party executive coach to improve its working environment. However, the coach withdrew her services after concluding that Blanchette did not seem to be aware of how her behavior was affecting others, the letter states. The board lost confidence in Blanchette afterward, according to the letter.

Scott Jackson, chief deputy prosecuting attorney, said the center’s staff currently has no interim director and most staff have supervisors. He said he approves bill payments and answers staff questions as needed. The county is conducting a national search for a new director that Jackson expects to take two to three months.

A call to Blanchette’s attorney, Thomas Boothe, was not returned.

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Columbian political reporter