WashCo chair disses claims of workplace bullying, poor leadership
Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington disputes the idea that there is a pattern of employees and coworkers complaining about her workplace conduct, despite documents spanning years that say otherwise.
Several elected officials and former colleagues say they've rescinded their endorsements of Harrington, who easily won election in 2018 against a conservative opponent but is now facing a fellow progressive in the May primary. Those who aren't backing Harrington again this time around contend she's displayed a lack of leadership at the county and a failure to effectively listen and communicate with others. Some also are unhappy with how she's responded to the employee issues that have dogged her position since her time on the Metro Council.
Harrington and her supporters chalk this opposition up to people being resistant to the progressive change she has brought to Washington County.
"We've had incredible results in three short years," Harrington said. "That is because of my leadership. We've had extraordinary successes in Washington County. In battling COVID, look at our vaccination rates, but also in the economic recovery."
"That has taken leadership and it has taken drive," she concluded. "Does that perhaps ruffle some feathers? You bet. There is the possibility of that. But does that make or diminish the results? No."
What her supporters say
Washington County Commissioners Nafisa Fai and Pam Treece have both endorsed Harrington and echoed similar feelings about where the frustration to her leadership is coming from.
"I am proud to endorse Kathryn Harrington for her re-election … because she's good for Washington County," said Fai. "She moved Washington County forward … and change is hard for people, especially if you're coming from centuries of doing business a certain way. So, I have compassion for people fighting for change and I have compassion for Kathryn."
Treece, who backed her endorsement of Harrington up with a $300 donation to her campaign in November, said she also supports Harrington's brand of leadership. Both she and Harrington pointed to transparency and organizational reforms as evidence.
"I think that she has brought an amazing organization level to our commission," Treece said. "We have systems in place that we didn't have in place previously, and it's due to the rigor that she puts into the process … and the transparency, frankly."
Some of those systems include making the commissioners full-time and better-compensated through a voter-approved charter review, so that commissioners "have more time to do the business of the public," Harrington said.
Harrington also arranged to have every document that commissioners are provided for review during meetings published online ahead of time. She also pushed for rolling agendas to be published, so that the public can see what's coming up in future meetings sometimes more than a week out.
Pamplin Media Group reached out to a handful of other supporters listed on Harrington's website as endorsers, including: U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, Beaverton Mayor Lacey Beaty, Tigard-Tualatin School District board member and state House candidate Ben Bowman, Hillsboro Councilor Gina Roletto, and state Rep. Susan McLain. None of them returned requests for comment.
After Pamplin Media reached out to several current Metro councilors, a Metro spokesperson left a voicemail asking for more details about the inquiry. That call was returned by Pamplin Media without follow-up.
What her detractors say
Several people who have voiced complaints about Harrington's behavior declined to comment for this story.
Asked by Pamplin Media whether he has witnessed unprofessionalism from Harrington or had it directed at him by her, Roy Rogers — Washington County's longest-serving commissioner — answered "yes" but declined to elaborate.
Other detractors are more willing to speak out against what they call a clear pattern of poor leadership and hostile workplace behavior.
The hot water in which Harrington has found herself stems from two separate incidents that span years.
The first relates to a 2015 memo from former Metro Council President Tom Hughes, in which he describes several staff members' complaints against Harrington's alleged "poor treatment of staff at our agency."
"I am writing this down in a memo at this point in time as I understand that many attempts have been made over the years, by various staff members, the chief operating officer, and others, to express to you how things you have said and actions you have taken can harm staff members personally and agency morale and work productivity generally," Hughes wrote in September 2015.
The letter also states that "These discussions have sometimes stopped particular behaviors temporarily, or have drawn apologies from you, but have not changed an ongoing pattern of behavior towards staff members that simply cannot continue."
Harrington points to the fact that Hughes, and other members of the Metro Council, went on to support her campaign for Washington County chair in 2018 as evidence that she took this criticism to heart and "put the frustrations that influenced my behavior at that time behind me."
"That letter happened in 2015. My colleagues endorsed me in 2018," she said. "That's because they saw, for years, that I had put on my reflective listening and put the frustration that had influenced my behavior behind me. And I've carried that forward."
But Hughes categorizes his support of Harrington's previous campaign differently.
"My call in the last election was based on strengths and weaknesses of the candidates in that race," he said. "Knowing them both very well, I felt that Kathryn's pluses outweighed her minuses."
Hughes not only endorsed Harrington in 2018, when she ran against former commissioner Bob Terry, he made a $2,500 donation to her campaign through his own political action committee.
But in this new campaign for the chair position, Hughes has thrown his name behind Harrington's opponent, Beach Pace, a Hillsboro city councilor and chief executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Columbia Northwest. Hughes says he plans to donate to Pace's campaign as well.
"In a new race with a different opponent, it's a new balancing act," Hughes said. "I haven't known Beach as long as I've known Kathryn, but I have a high respect for her intellect and leadership skills. In terms of endorsement this time around, it's largely an endorsement of Beach rather than a denial of Kathryn."
The second documented incident regarding Harrington's workplace behavior came about last year. It was originally reported on by KOIN 6 News, Pamplin Media's news partner.
Harrington's former chief of staff, Elizabeth Mazzara Myers, hired an attorney to lodge a legal complaint that alleged bullying, berating and retaliatory behavior on the part of Harrington and the county.
The complaint stemmed from an incident on June 17, 2021, when Harrington made a presentation before the Metro Council about a budgetary matter. An outdated draft of the presentation was given to her by staff, one that did not contain Harrington's requested edits. The complaint filed by Mazzara Myers' attorney alleges that Harrington "excoriated" her chief of staff and the county clerk in front of colleagues.
Mazzara Myers was later placed on administrative leave before a legal settlement was negotiated, following the complaint her attorney filed on her behalf. The county government agreed to pay Mazzara Myers nearly $80,000 in wages, benefits and legal fees to settle the complaint.
Despite this history of allegations that span two different government agencies, Harrington said there is "no pattern" of conflict between her and public employees.
Others say there is a clear and troubling pattern.
"It doesn't take a Ph.D in journalism to put those two together and see a connection," said Hughes, referring to both the 2015 and 2021 incidents. "It's kind of the same phenomenon that we discovered during her time at Metro."
And several of Washington County's mayors have noticed a pattern, too.
"Well, there's definitely a pattern," said Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway. "You can be a strong leader, either a man or a woman, without bullying and engaging in the behaviors that would lead to those kinds of legal complaints."
Tigard Mayor Jason Snider endorsed Harrington in 2018 as well. He had been backing her for re-election, but after KOIN published reports on the Mazzara Myers settlement, he asked that his name be removed from Harrington's list of endorsers. He told Pamplin Media that he's specifically been worried by Harrington's lack of responsiveness to the allegations.
"Staying silent is not consistent with my brand of transparency and in being open and honest," he said. "It's not an acceptable way to conduct yourself when you're in a leadership role and you're up for re-election."
Harrington said that her silence on the matter of her former chief of staff is not only a requirement of the settlement, but it's a reflection of her principles.
"I believe very strongly that every one of our employees, not only in Washington County but across the United States, needs to be protected and needs to have faith in the protection of the systems that are in place," Harrington said. "And because I stand on that principle, I cannot and will not comment on that case."
The settlement does not bar Harrington from speaking about the incident, although it stipulates that neither party can say disparaging things about the other.
However, there is an ongoing investigation by the county and an independent investigator that is looking into the settlement and the allegations laid out by Mazzara Myers' attorney.
Hughes said that while public employees "tend to keep their griping private," he knows of other county workers who have been unhappy with Harrington as well.
"When I talk to people who worked for the county and they voice those issues, often as they are leaving the county's employment, they complain of similar behavior," he said.
Eight mayors in Washington County — and two from Clackamas County — have endorsed Harrington's opponent, Beach Pace.
Pace said she was urged by many within Washington County politics to run against Harrington.
"It seemed like the counties were doing their thing, but not in concert with the cities," Pace said, specifically referencing policies related to pandemic relief and responses to the homeless crisis. "In many cases, it seems like cities were working independently of the county when they should be working together."
In talks with the mayors, Pace says she's heard a familiar refrain: The county government often fails to communicate with Washington County cities on policy decisions that affect them.
Snider said that that he and North Plains Mayor Teri Lenahan, as well as former King City Mayor Ken Gibson, tried to raise this complaint with Harrington in fall 2020.
While Snider said there was some immediate improvement, it didn't last long.
"I think at the time it was acknowledged and taken and accepted … we did see some improvement for a period of time," he said. "But I don't think we saw everything we wanted to see … and it wasn't sustained forever."
Pace, who represents Ward 1 on the Hillsboro City Council, pointed to a specific decision last year that the county government made.
In April 2021, Washington County purchased an old motel along 10th Avenue in Hillsboro to convert into a short-term homeless shelter and COVID-19 respite shelter for unhoused folks to safely quarantine.
"It was a great idea — let's get a shelter, let's get folks in housing. Awesome," said Pace. "But there was zero communication with the City of Hillsboro, and then they did the same thing in Forest Grove. That shelter has ruined the Latino business district."
If there had been better communication, Pace said city officials would have told their county counterparts that the 10th Avenue site — nestled among many minority-owned businesses — wasn't a good spot for a homeless shelter.
"We would never have put a shelter there," she said. "A truly progressive candidate would not only have done the shelter but involved the community."
Compounding Pace's frustration, she said, is that the city government has been catching most of the flak for it, even though it's a county facility, because the shelter is in Hillsboro. Just this past Tuesday, Feb. 15, a Spanish-speaking business owner spoke at a Hillsboro City Council meeting to lament the impact that the shelter has had on her business and those of other Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs. She thought that it was a city project.
"The ideal voter in an ideal situation wouldn't have to know, because it would have been a collaborative process … so that they don't have to be on the phone in tears," she said. "In a year, I would love to see someone thank the City Council for something that the county did, versus crying over it."
Harrington contends that she always tries to use "reflective listening skills" to make sure mayors and others feel listened to.
"I meet with the mayors monthly," Harrington said. "My predecessor didn't do that. … It takes two to talk and two to listen. I have listened, and I have made adjustments. But I also know that it takes two to talk and two to build trust in a relationship."
Why voters should care
Harrington argues that voters aren't fixating on her past behavior. They care about the results that Washington County's policies bring about.
"As I've been out on the doorsteps talking to voters, this is not what they're concerned about," she said. "So, I have been and continue to be focused on the needs of Washington County families as we continue to recover from this COVID-19 pandemic, and that our economy recovers, and that every individual here in Washington County has the opportunity to thrive."
Others rebut that discord among policymakers leads to bad policy, which in turn impacts voters. Hughes pointed to the Mazzara Myers settlement as an example.
"Her behavior quite obviously is costing the county money for an employee who doesn't even have to show up for work," Hughes, a former mayor of Hillsboro himself, said. "It's an example of how this kind of behavior can cost the county … and I think it's cost the county quality employees."
"I have never disagreed with Kathryn on policy," he added. "Our disagreements have always been on behavior."
Harrington says that what people mistake for her lack of listening often amounts to her having to make a decision in the moment.
"If people want us to just stall, delay, that's not who I am. That's not who I've ever been," she said. "And our community members know that. They know that I am genuinely doing the work to support them."
Harrington says her headstrong qualities are ultimately why voters should trust her judgment.
"Do I need to apologize for the fact that that makes some people uncomfortable?" she said. "Do I need to apologize because I move into solutions space for the benefit of our community, instead of just dwell and dwell and dwell on how bad things are or how difficult it is? Or how resources are limited? Heck no."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to address some grammatical errors and to correct the number of local mayors who have endorsed Pace.
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