WashCo Chair Harrington regrets appointing Sollman to SD 15
Just over three months after voting to appoint Janeen Sollman to the Oregon Senate, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington said Thursday, April 28, that she made the wrong choice.
Speaking at a candidate forum hosted by the Westside Economic Alliance in Tigard on Thursday, Harrington said she regrets not naming education lobbyist Lamar Wise to the Senate District 15 seat instead.
Sollman, then-state representative from House District 30, was the top choice of Democratic Party officials to finish the remainder of the term left by retiring Sen. Chuck Riley. Sollman is now seeking election to a full term for that seat this year.
Harrington said at the meeting on Jan. 14 to fill the vacancy that she would go with the party leaders' preference — the same process that was followed a couple weeks later when Rep. Nathan Sosa was selected to fill the House vacancy Sollman left behind. County commissioners voted 4-1 to appoint Sollman, with the dissenting vote cast for Wise by Commissioner Nafisa Fai.
At Thursday's forum, Harrington said she wishes she hadn't followed the typical process and would have instead voted for Wise if she could do it all over again.
"I regret not operationalizing equity by appointing Lamar Wise to the state Senate," Harrington said, responding to a question asking her to talk about a mistake she has made in the past. "That would have been good for us as a community."
Harrington's comments came the morning after a contentious, hours-long Washington County Democratic Party meeting. At the meeting, Sollman — who has endorsed Harrington's opponent, Beach Pace, for county chair this May — tried to introduce a motion rescinding the party's endorsement of Harrington and Washington County Auditor John Hutzler.
"In light of a nine-page report that was released after a Washington County investigation and multiple news stories of both Harrington and Hutzler, I could not remain silent," Sollman said in a statement shared with other Democratic precinct committee people, as well as with Pamplin Media Group.
She added, "Elected leaders must be held to a high level of standards and they must be held accountable for their actions."
Harrington declined to address, in an interview with Pamplin Media Group after the forum, whether her comments were directed against Sollman.
"I didn't say it that way, so I'm not going to agree to answer your presumption there," Harrington said, reiterating that her remarks were specifically about regretting she had not voted for Wise.
She added, "There are others who I have shared this regret with over the course of two months. It goes back much further than last night."
If Wise had been appointed to the Senate, he would have become one of just two Black state legislators currently representing Washington County, along with state Sen. Akasha Lawrence Spence, whose district encompasses parts of Southwest Portland and most of Tigard.
"We've all learned, since the Census information and further experience, I can say now — and I've been sharing this with folks over the last couple of months — that that is one regret that I have: that I didn't seize the opportunity to make an appointment following my values of operationalizing equity," Harrington told Pamplin Media Group on Thursday.
Harrington has long touted her commitment to equity and her efforts to reshape the organizational structure of Washington County's government to better include minority voices.
In voting for Wise at the January meeting, Fai cited wanting more diversity in the legislative delegation as one of her reasons.
But while Harrington has sought to make her equity work a major focus of her campaign, the allegations against Harrington that Sollman described have loomed large since KOIN 6 News first reported on them late last year.
As KOIN reported, one of Harrington's top staffers last year was forced out after she accidentally provided Harrington with the wrong material for a presentation. Witnesses later told a workplace investigator that Harrington loudly berated her over the mix-up within earshot of several other county employees.
The ex-staffer negotiated a nearly $80,000 settlement with the county after threatening legal action. In a letter warning of potential litigation, her attorney wrote that "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 as well."
After KOIN's report, county commissioners hired an independent investigator, who spoke with more than 20 people — many of whom told him that Harrington's conduct at the county had included shouting at employees, humiliating and belittling them, and that some employees had quit as a result, according to his report.
While she denies some of the claims in the report, Harrington has told Pamplin Media Group previously that she values feedback and is working to improve her behavior.
The issue came up at the Westside Economic Alliance forum, when both candidates were asked about how their leadership style would promote collaboration with various stakeholders throughout the county and avoid divisions.
Pace, a Hillsboro city councilor, answered that she doesn't see a spirit of collaboration at the elected level, particularly where Harrington is concerned.
"We are talking about someone who has a report out right now that says she's created a hostile work environment," Pace said. "I've talked to staff members at the county who are afraid to talk to me. I've talked to mayors who are afraid to talk to me. They didn't want to be seen with me in public because they were worried what she would do. This is real. The report is out. The effects are internal and external."
Harrington did not touch on the workplace incidents or the investigation at Thursday's forum, even after Pace brought the matter up.
One of the final questions at the forum — the one that prompted Harrington's comments about the Senate appointment — was submitted by an audience member. It asked, "All leaders make mistakes … what mistake would you go back and do differently?"
When Pamplin Media Group asked why her decision on who to appoint to the Senate was the mistake that came to mind, rather than the alleged behavior detailed in the workplace investigator's report, Harrington laughed. She said she was "not going to comment on that at the risk to employees."
"I answered the question that was asked to the forum that I was speaking with," Harrington said. "And I answered the question based upon my values and my commitment to equity in our community. I will continue to work on behalf of my community following those values — the values that I was elected on in 2018 and have used in my decision-making, along with factual data, each and every day."
"I chose to answer the question as I heard it," she concluded.
The allegations against Harrington, as well as her strained relationships with many of the county's mayors, have divided Democrats.
Both Harrington and Pace are registered Democrats, although the position of county chair is officially nonpartisan.
The Washington County Democratic Party's precinct committee people voted in early March to endorse Harrington. At that same meeting, they also voted to endorse Hutzler, who is seeking a fourth term as county auditor but faces a spirited challenge from one of his subordinates, principal management auditor Kristine Adams-Wannberg.
Like Harrington, Hutzler faced a recent internal investigation over complaints of a hostile work environment. In his case, the county's investigator cleared him of wrongdoing, although the final report urged him to "address the concerns brought forth by his staff and create a more positive work environment."
At the Washington County Democrats' virtual meeting on Wednesday evening, Sollman indicated that she would raise a motion to rescind the party's endorsement of Harrington and Hutzler at Wednesday's meeting.
"Being elected is a privilege and honor," Sollman wrote in her message to fellow PCPs. "We need to expect more from our leaders. In this case, Washington County governance depends on it."
It would have required a two-thirds majority vote of the PCPs — at least 75 — to change the endorsement but a simple majority to change the agenda.
But the procedural vote failed 58-54, denying Sollman the ability to make the motion or further argue her stance.
Pamplin Media Group spoke with multiple Democratic PCPs about the meeting, including Forest Grove resident Dale Feik, who supports Harrington.
Feik says that he opposed placing Sollman's motion on the agenda because he doesn't think it's fair to try to change the party's endorsement this late into an election cycle.
"It was not fair this late in time because the decision was final, based on a decision made previously," he said. "Now they are trying to change that decision … but they already spent all this money on the Voters' Pamphlet statements."
However, Democratic PCPs acknowledge that there was an effort weeks ago, during the first meeting to vote on which candidate to endorse for the elected position, to hold off until the details of the Harrington report were concluded and made public.
Feik said that vote was close but couldn't recall the exact tally. Either way, he didn't agree with the decision to hold off on endorsing a candidate, because he says he doesn't place much stock in the accounts in that report.
"Kathryn Harrington is the best thing that's happened to Washington County," Feik said. "It was unfortunate that the county thing occurred, but the bottom line is that I am not basing my endorsement on that problem. I'm just not."
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