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Affirmative Action Official For County Claims Sexual Bias Manager Says She Was Passed Over For Human Resources Job

The woman hired to protect the rights of Spokane County’s 1,600 employees charges she is a victim of sexual discrimination.

Catherine Harmon, the county’s personnel/affirmative action manager for the past three years, has filed federal and state complaints alleging she was passed over for the human resources director’s job because of gender.

Harmon claims a less-qualified male colleague was given the interim director’s job last March while the county searched for a permanent personnel chief.

Harmon also alleges that she is more qualified than the man eventually hired from outside for the permanent job.

She notes that in the original job search that drew 40 applicants last spring, an outside screening committee of Spokane human resources professionals rated her the No. 2 candidate. The top choice ultimately withdrew from consideration.

Harmon also states that while women comprise 41 percent of Spokane County’s work force, men hold 26 of 30 top management jobs.

“The irony of myself being the affirmative action manager and the individual charged with the responsibility for protecting other individuals’ rights with respect to equal employment opportunities is not lost on me,” Harmon wrote as part of her claim.

Harmon, 41, of Greenacres, refused to comment pending the outcome of investigations by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Washington State Human Rights Commission.

She recently settled a sexual discrimination and harassment claim against a Northern California county where she worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Spokane County has 90 days to respond.

Commissioners Phil Harris and Steve Hasson said Harmon’s claim has no merit and that two outside attorneys hired to review the allegations agreed.

One of the lawyers, Patricia Williams of Spokane, determined Harmon didn’t get the job because unidentified co-workers had a “lack of confidence” in her. Williams did not elaborate.

“I really don’t know (Harmon),” Harris said. “An investigator found no fault. I’d better not talk about it.”

Harmon’s complaint names Harris and Hasson, former commissioners George Marlton and Skip Chilberg, and Chief Administrative Officer Jim Lindow.

Last March 6, the county began recruiting throughout the West to replace Skip Wright, the longtime human resources director who was forced out.

In the meantime, commissioners appointed labor relations manager Gary Carlsen to be interim director of the department. Carlsen had six months of county experience at the time, Harmon’s claim states.

Attorney Williams determined that the decision to not promote Harmon then was proper, even though Carlsen’s background was “limited” and that he “had to rely on Ms. Harmon and others in the department for assistance.”

Eventually, Harmon was picked along with six others as a finalist for the permanent job, but according to the county, she did not interview well.

After the top candidate withdrew, the county opened a second search and upped the pay by about $4,000 a year to attract a better crop of prospects.

Last month, commissioners hired Chester “Ben” Duncan, a retired Air Force major who lives in Spokane, for the $60,000-a-year job.

Duncan was rejected in the first search because his social work degrees did not match the job’s educational requirement.

He reapplied the second time and beat out 36 other applicants. Some county employees allege cronyism, noting that Duncan claims to be a personal friend of Commissioner Harris.

Harris has denied any personal relationship with Duncan, although both are Air Force retirees and members of the same Rotary Club.

Instead of an outside committee of human resources professionals, commissioners appointed Public Works Director Dennis Scott and two citizens with financial ties to Harris’ campaign to screen the finalists.

All said Duncan was by far the best choice, even though he had no civilian experience.

Harmon, who currently earns $55,000 a year, has 14 years’ experience in human resources, including 10 with county governments.

She came to Spokane in December 1992 after serving as the first personnel officer ever in Mariposa County, Calif., where she worked 20 months.

Before that, Harmon worked nearly two years as the personnel director in Lassen County, Calif.

Records with the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission indicate Harmon successfully sued the Lassen County Board of Supervisors for discrimination and harassment.

She was paid $5,000 less than a male predecessor, the records state, and after complaining was besieged with sexist and racist cartoons.

Harmon eventually settled the case for $25,000.

Commissioner Hasson said had he known Harmon “passionately” wanted the interim director’s job, she would have gotten it.

“Maybe we could have done a better job over here in being sensitive to her,” he said. “Maybe we could have used better judgment, but we didn’t do anything inappropriate.”

Hasson compared Harmon and Carlsen to two backup quarterbacks playing for the same team. When the first-stringer got hurt, “we just grabbed one of them,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: 1994 Spokane County employee breakdown

Tags: ethics

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