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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Spokane’s human resources director leaving city as Straub investigation continues

Another official involved in the city’s handling of accusations made against former police Chief Frank Straub is leaving city employment.

Human Resources Director Heather Lowe’s last day of work will be Aug. 19, according to a resignation letter delivered to Mayor David Condon on Tuesday.

In a statement, Condon praised Lowe’s work with the city and indicated that she was recruited to work for another municipality.

“Heather Lowe has been a passionate advocate for city employees and the services they provide,” Condon said. “The city, with her leadership in human resources, has worked with its labor groups to make government more innovative, improved training and, in partnership with Civil Service, advanced new recruitment initiatives to grow diversity as we lay the groundwork for a 21st Century workforce.”

Straub had been accused of sexually harassing his spokeswoman, Monique Cotton, and of launching into tirades that some of his top administrators said crossed the line into abusive management. The city did not investigate the alleged harassment, instead transferring Cotton to a higher-paid job in the parks department. City officials have said they didn’t investigate harassment allegations because Cotton did not want them to do so.

But after Straub was forced to resign last September, he claimed allegations were unsubstantiated and that his civil rights were violated. He filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this year.

Lowe’s departure follows announcements that City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson were leaving city jobs. It also follows the release of a report from a city official who conducted what he calls an independent review of the Human Resource Department’s handling of harassment claims dating back to January 2011.

Blaine Stum, former chairman of the Spokane Human Rights Commission and former legislative aide to City Councilman Breean Beggs, requested all the closed case files of harassment claims delivered to the department starting in 2011 through December.

Stum said he sent the 17-page report to Condon’s office weeks ago and never received a reply. But Condon said in an interview Tuesday afternoon the report would be part of the city’s efforts to modernize its workforce, including closing wage gaps identified in a City Council report earlier this year.

“It’s definitely information,” Condon said. “I would want it to be validated. We as an organization are going to be looking at patterns and practices, at what we need to change.”

Condon said discussions about changing workplace practices would involve union leadership, including representatives of the employees cited in the harassment claims Stum’s report examines.

He said union representatives never expressed concerns to him or his office about the sexual harassment claims referenced in Stum’s report.

Stum, who has left his City Council job to pursue graduate studies, said his analysis of eight cases selected at random showed a lack of consistency in how human resources officials investigated claims of workplace harassment, with some cases taking months to complete despite evidence that conflicts were escalating in multiple departments.

In one instance, an investigator did not follow up on allegations of workplace stalking because the alleged victim said she thought it “was working itself out.” In another, a complaint received September 2013 about an ongoing physical dispute between two employees in the water division was not assigned to an investigator until January 2014, despite a supervisor noting the issue was “urgent,” according to Stum’s report.

Not all the cases examined resulted in inadequate investigations, Stum wrote. A human resources investigator meticulously reviewed allegations of sexual harassment involving homophobic slurs in the fall of 2013, eventually recommending departmentwide training and education. But those training materials are outdated, Stum said.

Stum, who also worked for former Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder, said when he made his request he was acting on conversations he had with employees inside City Hall who were dissatisfied with the Human Resources Department.

“There’s no standard sort of protocol,” Stum said. “It was up to who was investigating, whether they were going to be following best practices. There was no consistency.”

Stum released the report to media outlets on Friday after hearing nothing from Condon’s office. He said Tuesday he found out about Lowe’s resignation through the news release from Condon’s office.

City Council President Ben Stuckart called the allegations in the report “disturbing,” and said he’d received several complaints about how workplace complaints were handled by the Human Resources Department.

“I wish Heather the best, but there’s some concerns there,” Stuckart said of the Human Resources department.

Lowe, whose City Hall salary was about $126,000 in 2015, did not return a call requesting comment Tuesday. Condon declined to say where Lowe was seeking employment after Spokane.

Stuckart said the resignations of three of the key players in the handling of the Straub harassment matter “probably speaks for itself.”

“All these people keep leaving, while we try to find out the truth,” Stuckart said.

But Condon said the departures of Isserlis, Jacobson and Lowe were all for “very unique” reasons and that this was part of the transition into his second term as mayor, which began in January. There was no pressure for Lowe to resign, he said.

“I just got back today, and it was a surprise to me,” Condon said of Lowe’s resignation. “I had verbally heard on Friday, and I met with her today, and she gave me her letter of resignation.”

In that letter, Lowe thanks Condon for her time at the city and his leadership.

“I am proud of the accomplishments I and my team have made to this organization and owe many of those successes to the trust you have placed in me as Human Resources Director,” Lowe wrote.

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