County dismissed complaints against former parole department head
This is the second part in a two-part story. Read part one here.
Before Janet Evans retired this summer as director of Columbia County's parole and probation department, the county launched investigations into her on at least four occasions.
As the Spotlight reported last week, Evans was accused of bullying and harassment by multiple current and former employees. The county's series of probes into Evans present a mixed view of her leadership, with an investigator writing in 2018 that she made employees uncomfortable and treated them without "professional courtesy," but concluding at other times that unhappy subordinates disregarded or undermined her authority.
In one incident that the county investigated, a parole and probation officer who has since retired had a lunch meeting in 2018 with a Columbia County Circuit Court judge, Jenefer Grant, to discuss her issues with Evans. After Evans passed by the restaurant where they were having lunch, Grant told Henry Heimuller, the senior member of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, that Evans was "stalking" the officer, Patsey Sadler.
Last year, the Spotlight requested and received the investigation report, which concluded that Grant's allegation was "baseless," that parole and probation officers already had access to "a platform to express concerns and offer protection against retaliation," and that Grant and Sadler's meeting reflected "a form of disrespect or insubordination for the supervisory function and services afforded by this employer."
Former employees interviewed by the Spotlight in recent months said that they were disturbed when they read the investigation, because years of using the "proper channels" had resulted in their complaints being dismissed.
"I attempted on numerous occasions to outline the conduct I was concerned about, and to officially lodge grievances, all of which were ignored, downplayed, or refuted. I never felt supported by the county for myself or other staff's well-being," Trinity Monahan, a former Columbia County parole and probation officer and current St. Helens School Board chair, wrote in a 2017 letter to a colleague.
While Evans has left her position, past employees say that county leaders who remain — including the Board of Commissioners and human resources staff — failed to respond adequately to numerous complaints levied against Evans.
The county released the investigation involving Grant without argument. But when the Spotlight requested other investigations into Evans' conduct, the Board of Commissioners and county counsel pushed back.
Oregon public records law allows for public bodies to refuse to release records under certain conditions, often unless the requestor demonstrates that the public's right to transparency outweighs any privacy concerns. The Spotlight appealed to District Attorney Jeff Auxier, who agreed the investigations should be released.
The commissioners complied with Auxier's decision but sent along an accompanying letter saying that they were "extremely disappointed by the ruling."
The letter was signed by Commissioners Margaret Magruder and Henry Heimuller, while Commissioner Alex Tardif declined to sign on. (While the letter labels Tardif as "not present," he was in attendence and chose not to sign.)
The county letter described those who filed complaints against Evans as "disgruntled employees." The commissioners also wrote that the public release of the investigations could be demoralizing for employees and "lessen employees' willingness to participate in investigations."
However, multiple former employees who reviewed copies of the investigations provided by the Spotlight said that they were glad to finally see the documents, which they did not have access to through the county. In some cases, the ex-employees said, they were outraged by the characterization of individuals and events.
"If I had seen these investigations, I would have sued a long time ago," said Thomas Blum, the department's former work crew supervisor, who resigned in 2017.
Sadler had served as a parole and probation officer in Columbia County for 11 years, but she said management made it impossible for her to continue.
"After the disappointing findings of my grievance and complaints, and the continuance of a hostile work environment, for my health and well-being I have decided to retire sooner than I had planned," Sadler wrote in her July 2019 resignation letter.
County officials told the Spotlight that the county "diligently addresses any complaints made by or about county employees regardless of the intent behind such complaints."
"If such complaints are found to be without merit, that is a reliable finding due to the diligence of our investigations," the county letter continued.
A mixed bag
Former employees tell a different story.
In 2017, the county completed an investigation into allegations that Evans had made sexually suggestive comments to a male parole and probation officer. That investigation determined that the comments were not lewd remarks, but harmless, non-sexual compliments.
But two Community Justice employees at the time, Kris Ettner and Thomas Blum, said they witnessed the interactions and were not interviewed in the investigation. The investigation was completed by human resources director Jean Ripa, who wrote that she declined to interview the two employees "because it isn't alleged that they directly witnessed the comments," although both told the Spotlight otherwise.
Both Ettner and Blum "have recently been disciplined by Janet Evans and it is known to me that there are hard feelings related to the discipline, which calls into question their motives for making such allegations," Ripa continued in the 2017 report.
Ettner was fired in spring 2017. Blum, who later resigned, said he had not been disciplined but had voluntarily self-demoted.
The male probation officer who Evans made those comments to told the investigator that the comments were not inappropriate, but later quit for a position in a neighboring county. He declined the Spotlight's request for an interview, writing that he had "chosen to leave the negativity of that environment behind and move on with my life."
Ripa wrote that she interviewed only adult division supervisor Justin Hecht and the officer who was the subject of Evans' comments. She also reported that she had "the equivalent of an interview" with Evans but did not keep written notes of that talk.
The county had also sided with Evans when Sadler filed a harassment complaint in 2015.
In a 2018 report, however, Stoelk wrote that Evans and other supervisors in the department had set a low standard for acceptable use of work time.
"Yet this standard is exclusive for particular staff," Stoelk wrote, "and an apparent more stringent standard exists for those other staff under the same leadership."
Stoelk also found Evans had displayed a pattern of name-calling of her subordinates, county officials and employees of agency partners "in a manner that reflects a lack of respect of professional courtesy towards others."
Evans' behavior only exacerbated the dysfunctional workplace that she had aimed to correct, Stoelk wrote.
Several parole and probation officers addressed commissioners in an open meeting not long after Evans left the county's employment, describing a department with outmoded equipment, obsolete policies and a lack of effective leadership.
Some of those officers encouraged county commissioners to move the entire Community Justice department under the sheriff's office, citing a need for real leadership.
Ken Border, who has worked for the county for about five years, noted the department's high employee turnover in the last four years, something he found "disturbing." He said the majority of departed officers cited leadership as their reason for leaving.
Melinda Serfling said her fellow parole and probation officers "work hard to meet the requirements that are given, regardless of the lack of knowledge and support we do receive or have received in the past."
Even still, she added, "I've often wondered how this department has not gotten into hot water, legal trouble with the community (or) Department of Corrections before now." She suggested that officers taking the initiative themselves helped to deflect attention from the department's management issues prior to Evans' retirement.
Christine Barrington lasted only four months as a Columbia County parole and probation officer before quitting in late 2017. In a letter to county commissioners after her resignation, Barrington described a culture of bullying and unprofessional behavior under Evans. Barrington now works as a parole and probation officer in Washington County. She declined to comment but confirmed that she had not received any response from the commissioners after sending her letter.
Ettner and Blum said their attempts to raise concerns about Evans with county commissioners fell on deaf ears.
Blum said he spoke with Heimuller on the day he gave his two weeks' notice, but he felt Heimuller was dismissive.
Ettner said Heimuller never responded to letters and social media messages from her. Heimuller did not respond to a request for comment.
She said that Tardif did listen to her and later told her that he brought up the issues with Heimuller and Magruder but they weren't interested in investigating further. Tardif declined to comment on Ettner's claim.
Magruder declined to comment on specific personnel matters but said that "the goal is always to thoroughly investigate complaints that warrant investigation."
Multiple former Columbia County parole and probation officers declined to be interviewed on the record because their current employers, including parole and probation departments in other counties, had advised them against making public statements about their former workplace. One of those former probation officers said that push for silence further hinders any chance of meaningful change.
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.