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2016 investigation found Garrett used n-word to describe fellow county employees

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Casey Garrett speaks at a county board of commissioners candidate forum in March 2020.A prominent Columbia County official and candidate for a seat on the Board of Commissioners has been the subject of multiple internal complaints, including allegations he used the n-word in the workplace and bullied fellow county employees, his personnel file shows.

Casey Garrett is the director of parks and facilities for Columbia County and is running for a position on the county's three-seat Board of Commissioners.

Garrett was hired as the county's facilities services manager in early 2015.

At the six-month mark, the performance review completed by Garrett's supervisor, Todd Dugdale, offered a glowing assessment of Garrett's work. But by the one-year mark, Garrett's performance review was far less flattering. Dugdale, director of land development services, wrote that Garrett's personnel management skills were inadequate and had required intervention from other managers.

"With recent personnel problems in the facilities program and investigations of your conduct, management involvement and oversight has had to be increased beyond what should be necessary for your position," Dugdale, who has since retired, wrote in the 2016 review. "You are self-motivated but you have not always taken the time and care to bring others who are involved with your work and affected by your work along with you."

Dugdale noted that Garrett had clashed with other department heads at times.

"When challenged, you have sometimes reacted defensively and exercised poor judgement," Dugdale wrote.

He noted, however, that Garrett's relationship with the Board of Commissioners — at that time, Henry Heimuller, Tony Hyde and Earl Fisher — was strong.

The probationary period for the facilities services manager was set to be one year, but it was extended six months as a result of Garrett's first annual performance review.

By the end of 2016, however, the Board of Commissioners had appointed Garrett director of general services, moving facilities management out from under Land Development Services.

Referring to the incumbent in his campaign for county commissioner this year, Alex Tardif, Garrett claimed there has been "a pretty obvious coordinated effort between my opponent and the people supporting him" to dig up one-sided claims against Garrett.

Complaints and investigations

In 2016, the county investigated allegations that Garrett had referred to employees with a racial slur. An employee said they overhead Garrett say that "people working for me are (n-words)." Another employee, when contacted by human resources director Jean Ripa, said they had also witnessed Garrett use the n-word on separate occasions.

The investigation completed by Ripa sustained the allegation that Garrett had used the n-word.

Ripa wrote that the relationships between Garrett and his staff were clearly toxic.

"They don't trust him and don't feel that he respects them. Garrett feels that they could work harder and are just resisting his supervisory status over the unit since they have not had a very hands on supervisor for much of their work at the county," Ripa wrote.

Garrett has adamently denied ever using the n-word to describe his employees and said those who said otherwise were disgruntled employees who were already upset by changes Garrett was making in the department.

The alleged use of racial slurs is not the only issue raised with Garrett.

Lori Baker worked for the county's parks department for more than a decade before quitting earlier this year. Baker said that her relationship with Garrett started out positive and she was initially excited about revamping the parks program.

"But what I found really quickly was that if you have any kind of opinion that differs from him, it's generally unwelcome. And if you have an opposing opinion, that's really unwelcome. And if you have any critical opinion, it's absolutely not tolerated," Baker said. "You just get shut out."

Baker said she went from working on park improvement projects through the planning stages to cleaning bathrooms.

"He's not a leader," Baker said. "He can build stuff, and maybe he can do it cheaper than someone else, but what he can't build is community. He can't build a team in his own department."

Garrett said that Baker was clearly unhappy for most of the time since he took over the parks department, which underwent significant changes.

"I am happy that she was able to find something different. ... And I think it's good for our team to move forward with the way the program operates now," Garrett said.

While unions at the county have filed complaints concerning the actual operations under Garrett, many of those complaints have been about Garrett's communication style.

"That's coming from disgruntled employees," Garrett said, adding that there are many coworkers with whom he shares a good rapport. "I wouldn't have been able to accomplish all the things I have in the past six years if that weren't the case. So it might sound like a lot, but we're really talking about a handful of people that said that I'm not an easy person to work with."

Clashes with departments

Just weeks before the investigation into his alleged use of the n-word began, Garrett was accused of encouraging a contractor to bring chewing tobacco into the jail. The contractor, who was working on a construction project inside the jail, brought the tobacco into the jail in violation of jail security policy.

Following the breach of policy, then-Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, in a letter to Dugdale, wrote that Garrett would only be permitted into the jail when accompanied by a Sheriff's Office employee.

While the security rules could seem trivial to outsiders, Dickerson wrote, the rules "exist to make sure we are in compliance with federal, state and local law, and to protect lives."

In a county investigation that followed, Ripa reported that the jail commander Capt. Tony Weaver and Lt. Brian Pixley, who is now sheriff, both heard Garrett say that a deputy had told the contractor to put the tobacco in his pocket, but in fact, an investigator determined it was Garrett, not the deputy, who said so. The investigation did not find that Garrett had intentionally violated security policies, but it did find that Garrett lied to Weaver about the interaction.PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Attendees including Casey Garrett, third from the left, listen to a speaker at a 2019 parks advisory meeting.

Garrett also refuted that investigation, arguing that Weaver, who was fired in 2019, was not a trustworthy source.

Garrett also took issue with the way investigations were conducted and said Ripa refused to interview individuals who would have contradicted the claims against Garrett. He said the investigations into his conduct should have been carried out by an outside investigator, because of preexisting disagreements between Ripa and Garrett's departments.

Garrett claimed many of the accusations against him were the result of him coming into the county intent on transforming the department into one far more efficient and productive.

When he started in 2015, Garrett said, complacency was a key component of the county culture, and existing employees acted "entitled" to their positions, as if they shouldn't have to put in much effort. That culture has changed in recent years, Garrett said.

Asked if there wasn't a way to have made changes in the department without alienating longtime employees, Garrett said that drastic changes will always upset people.

"If you are specifically hired and tasked to make drastic changes, if ... there is nobody that gets upset during that process and doesn't agree, you're probably not doing your job," Garrett said.

The unrest in the department has lessened since his first year, Garrett said. "That probably has come from me getting better and better at making those things happen in a smoother way. I have still dealt with resistance and people unhappy, you know, even in the past few years, but the pace of that has gotten so much less," Garrett said.

"Through my six years of working for the county, like with any change in your career, there's learning curves," he added, adding that government operates far differently than the private sector, where Garrett worked prior to 2015.

But it was only last year that Columbia County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Ted Grove sent a letter to Garrett and county commissioners, stating that Garrett was no longer permitted to speak with state court employees other than Grove.

"This restriction is the result of complaints I have received from court staff about your inappropriate behaviors toward them which have been described as condescending, harassing, and bullying," Grove wrote.

Grove told the Spotlight that those complaints were from Zoe Wild, the trial court administrator. Wild, who has since left the county and state for a position with federal courts, declined to comment.

Garrett's personnel file was requested by the Spotlight and other groups, but the county heavily redacted the documents, sending dozens of fully blacked-out pages. The Spotlight appealed the redactions to the Columbia County district attorney, who handed the appeal off to a Multnomah County deputy district attorney, Adam Gibbs.

Gibbs sided with the Spotlight's argument that Garrett's run for public office justified public release of his disciplinary records.

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