Kathryn Harrington accused of 'explosive tendencies' toward staff
A KOIN 6 News investigation found Washington County is paying out thousands of dollars after its top elected leader, Kathryn Harrington, is accused of creating a "toxic work environment."
Documents obtained by KOIN 6 News, and also reviewed by Pamplin Media Group, from Harrington's time as Washington County chair as well as her previous tenure on the Metro Council allege that Harrington shouted at, insulted and in some cases humiliated employees in front of colleagues.
Harrington's alleged behavior escalated to the point where, in 2015, a fellow Metro councilor attempted to intervene and, earlier this year, Washington County agreed to a hefty settlement to avoid a lawsuit by one of her top staffers.
Settling with chief of staff
The accusations of a "toxic" work environment under Harrington came to a head following a presentation she made to her former colleagues at Metro Council on June 17, 2021, about how money should be spent on services for the homeless.
When she was done it quickly became apparent members of the Metro Council were confused by Harrington's speech.
"Chair Harrington just texted me and said the wrong letter was sent," said Council President Lynn Peterson said.
Behind the scenes, Harrington allegedly blamed her chief of staff, Elizabeth Mazzara Myers, for the mistake.
According to a letter that Mazzara Myers' lawyer sent to Washington County's attorneys, Harrington "stormed into Ms. Mazzara Myers's office yelling, stating she was embarrassed and angry and needed to know what happened."
The relationship between Harrington and Mazzara Myers deteriorated after that incident, the letter from attorney Dana L. Sullivan indicates. In July, the county placed Mazzara Myers on paid administrative leave. After Sullivan warned the county's attorneys that Mazzara Myers was prepared to sue, the two sides reached a separation agreement in September.
The settlement includes paying Mazzara Myers $71,413.60 in full wages for 6 months, until the end of March 2022, along with $7,100 in legal fees plus "all benefits."
Harrington declined KOIN's request for an interview but provided this statement: "From my standpoint, this is an employee personnel matter, and I take the protections of our staff and their faith in those protections very seriously. Thus, I can't and won't comment on this particular case. My focus is on the critical work that needs to be done to deliver for Washington County families as we recover and rebuild from COVID-19."
In the settlement, Washington County agreed to give Mazzara Myers a letter of recommendation. Both sides agreed "not to make any negative statements regarding" each other or the county.
Harrington's time at Metro
Sullivan alluded to Harrington's "demonstrated history of berating those with whom she had disagreements" in his letter.
The letter said Harrington shared the blame for Mazzara Myers' mistake and also said: "If this matter is not resolved at this stage, discovery will reveal that Chair Harrington's explosive tendencies are well-known, and others, including elected colleagues, have expressed concern about the Chair's threatening demeanor."
Tom Hughes, who was president of the Metro Council when Harrington was there, told KOIN 6 News there were "two or three times we had incidents where Kathryn had kind of blown up at one of the staff members."
In 2015, Hughes sent a memorandum to Harrington that said she was "creating a climate of fear, hostility anxiety, emotional distress." He wrote that Metro employees reported "feeling bullied, shamed, intimidated and scolded without the ability to speak up or defend themselves."
Hughes also wrote, "You have accused staff of 'having secret meetings', of conspiring, and of trying to keep information from you or the Council."
"She would reach down into the departments and explode at someone she felt had not provided her with as much information as she thought she needed in order to make a decision," Hughes told KOIN 6 News.
Asked if it was a hostile work environment, Hughes said he didn't think Harrington "had the capability at Metro to create a hostile work environment. I think that it was her part of it could be hostile."
Hughes said Harrington's behavior at Metro improved after he called her out.
In 2018, term-limited after 12 years on the Metro Council, Harrington ran for Washington County chair. She handily defeated former county commissioner Bob Terry, becoming the first Democrat elected to the officially nonpartisan position in more than two decades.
"Having listened to what some of my friends at the county have been saying," Hughes said, "it doesn't appear that the problem entirely went away. But at least it got better while she was at Metro."
Ahead to 2022
While she has announced plans to run for re-election in 2022, Harrington has already drawn a high-profile challenger in Hillsboro City Councilor Beach Pace. On her campaign website, Pace lists Hughes among her prominent backers.
Reached for comment by Pamplin Media Group, Pace said people have approached her as far back as August to tell them about negative experiences with Harrington.
"Most of those conversations culminated with an ask for me to run for county chair, which partly influenced my decision to run," Pace wrote in an email Friday, Dec. 17, emphasizing the word "partly."
Pace described both Washington County's payout to Mazzara Myers and the history of allegations that Harrington treated employees poorly as "deeply concerning."
"I believe that the many hours of county staff time spent on this issue could've been better spent on solving problems and serving the people of Washington County," Pace added. "I believe that there is also a better use for (the payout money) especially when the county staff is facing yet another year of budget cuts."
Harrington declined to comment for this story when reached by Pamplin Media Group, sharing a version of the statement she provided to Pamplin Media Group's partner, KOIN 6 News.
The Washington County Board of Commissioners has scheduled an executive session Monday, Dec. 20, to discuss the KOIN report. Executive sessions are not accessible to the public and cannot be reported on. It's unclear whether the board will hold any discussions or take any actions related to the report in an open session.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story originally appeared on the website of KOIN 6 News, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group. Max Egener of Pamplin Media Group also contributed to this report.
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