Complaints that have come to light against two high-level county officials paint a negative picture.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Why does it seem like the Columbia County Courthouse is a difficult place to work?As we were unfortunately reminded here in northwest Oregon last month, where there's smoke, there's fire.

Columbia County evaded the devastation of September's wildfires, but something undoubtedly smells foul in St. Helens.

We reported earlier this month, in a two-part series, on the complaints, investigations and turnover that preceded Janet Evans' retirement as head of Columbia County Community Justice this summer.

Evans, according to multiple people who spoke with the Spotlight, lodged written complaints with Columbia County human resources or both, bullied and intimidated parole and probation officers in her department. Even despite a critical investigation report three years ago, the county did little to rein in Evans, and two of the three county commissioners attempted to block the release of public records to the Spotlight, which District Attorney Jeff Auxier ultimately authorized.

It's bad enough that Evans presided over a hostile work environment that prompted multiple experienced officers to leave Columbia County, including Trinity Monihan, the St. Helens School Board chair who now works in a neighboring county.

It's worse that it seems to be part of a pattern.

In this week's issue, the Spotlight reports on complaints against Casey Garrett, the Columbia County Parks, Forests & Recreation director who is now running against County Chair Alex Tardif to be one of the three commissioners charged with overseeing county government.

Former employees say Garrett threw his weight around, verbally abusing county and state employees at the Columbia County Courthouse and using his authority to reassign at least one worker to increasingly menial tasks until she finally quit.

Garrett denies the worst of the allegations against him. He told the Spotlight that "if you are specifically hired and tasked to make drastic changes" and no one is upset by them, then "you're probably not doing your job."

That's a reasonable argument. Workplaces, both in the public and private sector, can fall into bad habits — whether it's poor work ethic, a cliquish culture or worse — and calcify. We don't have as clear a view of what Garrett's department was like before he was hired in 2015 as we do since he's been in charge, but it's not unreasonable to think he was brought in with a mandate to make some changes.

But what doesn't seem to fit into "shaking things up" is denigrating employees, using racial slurs in the workplace, and causing issues in other departments to the point where both the county's presiding judge and the county's former sheriff restricted Garrett's access.

Garrett denies using the n-word, at least, but even if we take him at his word — despite multiple employees complaining about it and an internal investigation concluding that he did, in fact, use that language — the portrait that his personnel file paints is still that of a department head who, through his own behavior, has struggled to maintain the respect of the people who work for him and the people he works alongside.

We're troubled by the pattern that is emerging.

County commissioners were seemingly uninterested in disciplining Evans or otherwise interfering with her work as a department head. When the Spotlight began investigating the story, they attempted to block our reporting, objecting to the release of public records and, after the district attorney ordered them to be released, sending an accompanying letter to express their "disappointment" that the newspaper was being allowed to view them.

While Tardif declined to be interviewed for our report on Evans, former Community Justice employees said of the three commissioners, he was the only one who appeared to take their issues with Evans seriously.

Now Tardif is fighting for his political life against another county department head accused of mismanagement and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

Again, when the Spotlight asked for public records regarding Garrett, county commissioners attempted to stonewall. The disciplinary files we originally received were heavily redacted. Once again, the Spotlight had to appeal to the district attorney's office to obtain more complete records.

The Spotlight hasn't and won't offer an endorsement in the race between Garrett and Tardif, or in the race between County Commissioner Margaret Magruder and progressive challenger Brandee Dudzic. Voters can make their own choices without our editorial board telling them who we prefer for the job.

But we do urge Columbia County residents and voters to think about stories like our reports on the turmoil within Evans and Garrett's departments. Is it important that these stories come to light, or should the county try to keep them under wraps? Should the county courthouse be a safe and welcoming place to work? Or should department heads be allowed to manage their employees however they choose, without meaningful oversight and without public transparency?

At the end of the day, the buck stops with the Board of Commissioners. Whomever sits on the board in 2021 and beyond, we hope they bring a renewed focus to ensuring a respectful work environment and accountability to the people of Columbia County.

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.