Gaston staff cite 'egregious corruption' at city hall
A week after accusing the city of "egregious corruption," Gaston's public works director has tendered his resignation.
Brent Whittaker, one of only three city employees, submitted a formal letter of resignation on May 15.
At the council's May 8 meeting Whittaker called for the resignation of one of the city's five elected councilors, saying the council mishandled a series of personnel issues that have plagued City Hall for months and led to the resignation of Mayor Jerry Spaulding in April.
"I don't want to work for a government like that," Whittaker told the council during what was meant to be an otherwise run-of-the-mill departmental report during the meeting. "I don't want to be a part of it."
It is highly unusual for a public employee to accuse elected officials of misconduct, especially during a public meeting, but staff in the small city south of Forest Grove say the issue reached a boiling point following three months of back-and-forth allegations of unprofessional behavior among staff and elected officials.
Complicating matters, staff say, is the lack of a paid city administrator to oversee personnel issues, leaving the city council with that task.
Gaston, which hugs Washington County's southern border with Yamhill County, has about 700 residents and just three municipal employees — Whittaker, city recorder Wenonah Blanchette and grant writer Sharon Bregante-Candau.
For months, the three have been at odds, accusing each other of a host of alleged workplace issues including allegations of drinking on the job; accessing colleagues' emails, computer files and desk drawers without permission; sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, among others.
The personnel strife has split the Gaston City Council, which oversees the staff. Various councilors have sided with various employees. Whittaker's fiancé, Suzy Carver, is a member of the city council.
Spaulding, Gaston's mayor, resigned last month amid the turmoil after less than four months in office. He did not give a reason for his resignation in his hand-written letter to the council, but several people close to the city say his departure was linked to the workplace issues. Spaulding has not returned calls for comment from this newspaper. Council President David Meeker was appointed to fill the remainder of Spaulding's term, which doesn't end until 2023.
Probe finds 'reactionary' conduct
The allegations came to a head in March after one employee walked out of City Hall with several items of city property, including the mayor's computer, city records and a bag with petty cash in it, according to two City Hall sources who were not authorized to speak on the record about the allegations.
The sources said the items were later returned, the employee was placed on a month-long suspension and an internal investigation was launched into several of the workplace allegations filed by city staff.
On April 8, Meeker, then council president, issued a memo to staff saying the city's independent investigator did not find claims of drinking at the office or sexual harassment sustainable and no charges were filed against the employee who took the items from city hall.
Instead, the investigator found all three of the employees had acted unprofessionally, with moody, emotional and "reactionary" outbursts against one another, according to Meeker's memo, which was obtained by the News-Times.
"The conclusions reached by the investigator indicate that the city's personnel issues are not the result of serious incidents of misconduct," Meeker wrote, "rather the issues result from an absence of professionalism."
The three city's employees were required to sign the memo, saying they would act more professionally in the future. Mayor Spaulding resigned that same day.
Since taking over as mayor, Meeker spends hours each day at City Hall, according to staff, trying to help things run smoothly. The city's insurance company, CityCounty Insurance Services, has since re-written the city's employee handbook in an attempt to address the issues, city staff said.
"Your job is to serve the public," Meeker wrote to staff on April 8. "You are only able to adequately do so when you act in a professional manner. This does not mean you have to like one another, but you must get along professionally."
But employees and counselors say the heightened tensions continue, sometimes leading to confrontational encounters at City Hall between elected officials and city staff.
Whittaker has accused councilor Bill Martin of berating and harassing staff regularly, and said Martin has created a hostile work environment, demanding documents several times a day. Whittaker has also accused Martin — who was named council president when Meeker took over as mayor — of passing along confidential emails related to personnel issues to city staff without consent.
"It's constant, it's daily," Whittaker told the council during its May 8 meeting. "The level of unprofessionalism that has been shown, the amount of time he has spent down here intentionally trying to intimidate and intentionally trying to harass employees absolutely needs to stop."
Whittaker's complaints were backed up at the meeting by the city's grant writer, Bregante-Candau, who told the council she has had to work from home due to bullying and hostility at City Hall, which has affected her ability to finish projects.
"I've had to leave City Hall because of all the disruption and unprofessional workplace behavior here," she told the council. "... I'm continually berated. People are banging on my desk, pointing fingers at me, and stalking me on the security camera feed."
Bregante-Candau told councilors she had spoken with a Washington County sheriff's deputy about the alleged harassment. Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Danny Dipietro told the News-Times the alleged incidents didn't rise to a criminal offense and the matter wasn't investigated further.
At the May 8 meeting, Whittaker said Martin should resign from the council and asked city leaders to take the unusual step of barring the elected official from coming to City Hall and speaking with employees. Councilors discussed the allegations in a closed-door session on May 15, but no public decisions were made about the allegations.
Martin told the New-Times on Friday, May 24 that the allegations were untrue, adding they were another example of the ongoing personnel issues at City Hall.
"I don't care who you are, I treat everybody the same," Martin said. "Their personal feelings about me I don't care about, I'm here for the people of Gaston, which is why I wanted those records."
Martin said he would not be resigning his position and has said he is entitled to the public documents he requested, which included payroll records for city staff.
"If you want to get rid of me then recall me — that's how I look at it," Martin said. "I have no reason to lie to anyone on that Council. I don't like playing games."
Martin said it is unfortunate that the issues at City Hall have caused such a shakeup, leading to the resignation of the mayor and a department head.
"I think everybody should just grow up. We're not in high school anymore — that's got to go," Martin said. "Don't accuse people of things that aren't true."
Lack of paid administrator not unusual
Unlike many larger cities, Gaston does not have a paid administrator to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city. Instead, employees work largely independently, reporting directly to the city council.
This chain-of-command, staff have claimed, can make it difficult for employees to be held accountable, as employees have no direct supervisor but instead answer to the council as a whole.
"If I screw something up and make a mistake, I want to be held accountable for it," Public Works Director Brent Whittaker told the council on May 8. "If there's something that I do that warrants disciplinary action, I should be disciplined. That's how it is in an employment relationship. Right now, there is no adherence to policy, no adherence to law. I'm sorry, I don't trust a government like that."
Kevin Toon, a spokesman with the League of Oregon Cities, said that it's not unusual for cities to function without a city manager. Nearby Yamhill also lacks a city manager, with employees supervised by the mayor and council directly.
Gaston is one of approximately 70 cities in Oregon without a paid administrator, Toon said, with populations ranging from a low of 20 in the Central Oregon town of Lonerock to 3,305 in Hubbard, just south of the Portland metro area, in Marion County.
Before taking office as mayor last month, David Meeker said hiring a city manager position isn't possible, given the city's finances.
"It is simply not feasible for a city the size of Gaston to hire a full-time manager to oversee every interaction between employees," then-City Council President Meeker wrote in an April 8 memo to staff. "It is up to you to find a way to work together and, if you are unable to work together, it is up to you to find other employment."
Whittaker's last day at City Hall will be June 11.
By Geoff Pursinger
Follow Geoff at @ReporterGeoff
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.