June 22, 2008 in City

Harris’ son blames layoff on retaliation by county

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Former County Commissioner Phil Harris’ son, whose hiring set off charges of nepotism, alleges county leaders retaliated against him for filing a whistle-blower complaint and other grievances.

Stephen Harris, who was hired in 2005 as a development assistance coordinator, was notified earlier this month that he would be laid off in the second round of job cuts to hit county employees in the past two months. Twelve people have lost their jobs and other open positions have been eliminated.

Harris, who earns $44,688 a year, filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging the county CEO wrongfully transferred $1 million or more from the building and planning department. Harris’ last day with the county will be June 30.

The allegation is the most recent controversy to hit the county’s troubled building and planning department. A survey last year showed extensive dissatisfaction within the division, and Harris’ allegation is the third whistle-blower complaint to emerge from the department in the past 18 months.

County commissioners question the timing of the whistle-blower filing and say Harris’ name appeared on a layoff list weeks before any whistle-blower allegations.

But Harris contends he also was targeted for filing grievances months before layoffs were mentioned. Harris claimed his pay was too low and a manager wrongfully stopped allowing him to use a county-owned car to get to work. He recently won the grievance regarding the car.

In January 2007, Harris’ boss, Economic Development Director Erik Skaggs, resigned, leaving Harris as the lone employee of the economic development department. County commissioners declined to fill the job and Harris, who does not have a college degree, claimed he deserved a pay increase for the extra responsibilities.

“I felt that for 24 months I held the director’s position of economic development and ran a whole entire department for almost two years,” Harris said.

Harris, 50, said his experience, which includes being a business owner in California and 15 years at Interstate Batteries in Dallas, make up for his lack of college education.

Harris and one other laid off employee are members of the Public Works Guild. The other employees who lost their jobs are part of Local 1553 of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees.

Gordon Smith, staff representative for 1553, said the union will closely watch results of the whistle-blower investigation. If money was improperly transferred, the union likely will demand that employees regain their jobs.

Spokane County spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said county CEO Marshall Farnell is confident the allegations are false.

“He said there is no way that something like that could have happened,” Wheatley-Billeter said. “The auditor’s office would have been all over us.”

Harris’ hiring set off a wave of criticism, in part because he was the third son of Phil Harris to take a county job since the elder Harris had been elected. It also set off a public records lawsuit from Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County, which claimed the county didn’t comply with its request for documents related to the hiring.

The county has paid an outside law firm to defend it in that lawsuit and stood by the hiring of Harris, saying he was qualified for the job. But when asked last week if he believed the hiring was proper, county Commissioner Mark Richard declined to comment.

Richard, however, said he’s certain the layoffs, including Harris’, were done properly.

“I have no questions whatsoever that it was not in retaliation,” Richard said. “We’re not that stupid.”

He noted that the county has vigorously defended Harris’ hiring.

“In light of that history, we have clearly demonstrated that we have no ill will” against Harris, Richard said.

County commissioners say three administrators in the building and planning department drew up a list of employees who would be laid off and presented it to them. They said they didn’t vote on the list and did not raise objections.

“I don’t think it’s any secret, (Harris is) not an employee with a lot of seniority,” county Commissioner Todd Mielke said.

They also said they have not heard from Phil Harris about the layoffs.

However, Mielke recalled a conversation late last year in which Phil Harris said Farnell made commitments about his son’s employment that had not been fulfilled.

“We really didn’t go into any detail,” Mielke said. “I wasn’t clear what it meant.”

Mielke said he told him that any issues surrounding his son’s employment should play out without intervention from commissioners.

Attempts made to reach Phil Harris and Farnell were unsuccessful on Friday.

County commissioners said the need to lay off employees is a result of a sharp fall in construction. While much of county government is funded through taxes, the building and planning department is supported mostly through fees and permits.

Harris said he learned about the alleged transfer from the building and planning department to the county’s general fund when he was creating a budget for economic development.

Harris’ attorney, Aaron Lowe, said a county employee mentioned that the money would not be repaid to the department during one of Harris’ grievance proceedings. He added that he doesn’t have other documentation about the allegation and he declined to name the employee.

“I don’t make those allegations lightly,” Lowe said. “I think that there is some proof that will come out in the process.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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