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Commissioners 'unknown, mistrusted or inaccessible,' consultant summarizes in survey that provides insight to county operations

PMG FILE PHOTO - Many county employees work out of the Columbia County Courthouse in St. Helens, next to the historic courthouse. Columbia County staff described the agency culture as an "old boys network" in a recent survey.

An anonymous survey of Columbia County staff found that staff members fear retaliation if they disagree with commissioners or supervisors in what some described as an "old boys network."

"Personal agendas and favoritism (have) a damaging impact on the county's ability to run as a whole. There appears to be a lot of negativity between the Commissioners," an outside consultant wrote in a summary of survey responses provided to commissioners.

Just 8% of respondents agreed that management was transparent and staff knew what was going on, compared with 33% who disagreed.

A summary of respondents' comments explained that department heads often have free rein to decide what incidents or changes should be mentioned to staff, resulting in some employees being kept in the loop while others rely on the "rumor mill."

A majority of respondents do not fully believe the county commissioners "provide an effective and safe space for employees to share issues and problem-solve."

Commissioners Margaret Magruder and Henry Heimuller both expressed frustration at the perception that county leadership would retaliate against staff.

"I'm getting a little bit tired of all this discussion about retaliation," Heimuller said at the commission's Sept. 18 work session. "If someone is going to complain (about any of the three commissioners) they should be willing to have their name on that."

"The fear of retaliation often happens. Retaliation does not often happen, but the fear is there," Human Resources Director Jean Ripa said at a meeting earlier this month with department heads.

"I don't want us to come across as a retaliatory group, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think people just fear that," Magruder said.

One hundred of the county's 220 employees responded to the survey, which was conducted this summer as part of the county's strategic planning initiative. Survey documents in the Spotlight's possession are available for on the Spotlight's website.

There were some bright spots in the survey results. On big-picture questions, respondents viewed the county more positively: 59% of respondents said they agreed or somewhat agreed that the departments worked together effectively to accomplish the county's goals, and 53% of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed that the county "operates within its core principles of service, engagement, connection and innovation."

At times, however, the themes of distrust, stagnation, favoritism and fear of retaliation overshadowed positive comments.

"One of the biggest concerns I have that I think we should address is the large number of people who were afraid to take it ... because they didn't trust us. I think that speaks volumes just from the get-go," Nathan Woodward, the county surveyor, said at a county department head meeting earlier this month, noting that he had heard people didn't trust that the survey was truly anonymous.

The lack of trust was present among commissioners as well, with Magruder and Heimuller saying they worried about the survey results being shared.

"I have great concerns about them (the survey documents) inadvertently or advertently being shared with others," Magruder said at a meeting long before any documents were provided to the Spotlight.

The survey was designed to be anonymous, but some staff left comments that made their identities clear, particularly if they self-identified as members of small departments. Some comments even outlined accusations against specific staff members; those comments were not included in either of two documents provided to the Spotlight.

In numerous meetings after the survey had been completed, county commissioners debated which materials they would release to the public and to county employees. On the survey, staff were asked to rate their agreement with statements about the county and provide comments explaining their ratings.

The responses to multiple choice questions were released by the county after the Spotlight filed a records request, but the county declined to release the comments made by respondents. The county claimed the information was submitted to the county in confidence and that releasing the anonymous employee comments would jeopardize honest communication between county officials and employees.

A draft version of the survey summary prepared by county staff and the consultant, provided to the Spotlight by an anonymous source, included summaries of the comments made by respondents.

The summary noted concern "about the influence and power of one department over the Commissioners," but did not name any specific department.

"Also there are concerns that the Commissioners let one department make decisions for them and that department is neither approachable or behind or supportive of employees," a summary of responses to one question showed. Other respondents believed the commissioners and department heads protected their friends.

A common theme in staff responses was that the county is reactive, rather than proactive, though respondents also said the county was alert to the communities' needs and able to adapt to those needs.

Asked to choose three words to describe the county's culture, negative responses included terms like "inflexible," "stagnant," "distant," "fragmented" and "cowardly." Positive terms included "friendly," "efficient," "family" and "community."

The majority of respondents believed responsibilities "fall between the cracks" in the county.

"For the most part, things don't 'fall between the cracks.' However, they are many times placed on the back burner until they burst into flames. Then we go into fire suppression mode," one respondent wrote.

"There's a lot of good comments and there's a lot of constructive information," said communications coordinator Karen Kane, who led the survey effort. "So personally, I think the bad ones and the good ones are good to hear."


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