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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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Ex-Richland parks head alleges harassment and more in blistering resignation letter

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KENNEWICK — Laura Hester, whose tenure as Richland’s parks and public facilities director lasted less than 10 months, alleged harassment and poor management by city leadership in her written resignation.

The Tri-City Herald obtained Hester’s Oct. 19 resignation letter from the city on Nov. 22 under the Washington Public Records Act.

Hester, 48, cited conflicts with her supervisor when the Herald contacted her about her sudden departure, before the letter was made public.

Initially, she was critical of a deputy city manager but later changed her statement to express her appreciation to the city and said she would always think highly of her time in Richland.

Blistering letter

Internally, she’d already submitted a blistering letter of resignation to City Manager Jon Amundson, effective the next day, Oct. 20.

The letter offers a clearer view of her reasons for quitting.

This week, a Richland spokesperson told the Herald it would not publicly discuss her allegations, but disputed Hester’s claims.

Hester did not respond to written and verbal requests to elaborate on her unsparing assessment of Richland city government.

“Throughout my 20 years of working in local governments, I have never encountered a city so poorly managed,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

Hester wrote that she resigned because she was being undermined, micromanaged and subjected to “persistent harassment.”

She described a pattern of attempts to portray her as untruthful. She said that the week before she resigned, her access to email and other files was cut off while she attended a conference. That prevented her from accessing information supporting her claims.

“I know I won’t have a fair opportunity to clear my name,” she wrote.

The city said Hester has not filed any legal claims against the city which is necessary under state law if she intends to sue.

The city spokesperson said Richland has not paid Hester any kind of settlement beyond the salary and benefits she earned. Records such as emails and other documents are retained in accordance with Washington state law, the city said.

While it is unclear if her resignation is tied to a public furor over plans to develop Leslie Groves Park, she left soon after the city “paused” plans to add parking, pickleball courts and other amenities to the 149-acre park after a vocal group of concerned neighbors showed up at a city council meeting.

Nationwide search

After a nationwide search in 2022, Hester was chosen from a field of half a dozen finalists. She was offered the parks and public facilities director post in October 2022 after her predecessor, Joe Schiessl, was promoted to deputy city manager.

Hester brought about 20 years of increasing responsibility in parks and recreation programs in Utah and Arizona to Richland.

She started the new job on Jan. 3, 2023 after moving her family from Arizona. The city offered a $12,000 relocation package and a $146,000 annual salary.

As parks and public facilities director, she reported to Schiessl.

The position is responsible for overseeing planning, organizing and directing the city’s parks and public facilities department, which includes parks, recreation programs, capital projects, the city golf course and the Richland Public Library.

A 2022 job posting gave a salary range of $139,000-$195,000.

Relationship soured

Hester wrote in her resignation letter that while she was excited to join Richland, the relationship soured.

“Regrettably, I’ve found myself caught in an atmosphere defined by ongoing undermining, excessive micromanagement, and persistent harassment,” she wrote, identifying her supervisor Joe Schiessl by first name.

“I’ve received numerous emails, each brimming with intrusive questions aiming to catch me in falsehoods,” she wrote. “Moreover, every interaction with Joe, even casually, (one accusation I was joking), has been manipulated to portray me as untruthful.”

Further, Hester claimed she was never given an opportunity by the Human Resources department to defend herself.

She expressed regret about how her departure came about.

“Differences aside, we had the opportunity to handle this situation with professionalism and mutual respect, avoiding the need for these extreme measures,” she wrote. “It’s important to note that the exceptional Park and Public Facilities Department employees deserve better. We could have reached a mutual decision that allowed for a seamless tradition, honoring their dedication and hard work.”

The parks and public facilities job had yet to be posted on the city’s website as of Nov. 27. The city is currently advertising for a police chief and public works director.

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