Whatcom County Council to investigate handling of sexual harassment complaints


In a unanimous 7-0 vote, Whatcom County Council decided during an April 30 special meeting to hold an independent investigation into Whatcom County’s handling of sexual harassment reports involving former public works director Jon Hutchings. Details of what the investigation will look like are still unclear as council is expected to discuss the format during its next meeting on Tuesday, May 7. 

Hutchings complaints 

The special council meeting follows over a week of public scrutiny about the manner in which Whatcom County officials paid $225,000 last November in response to claims that Hutchings had sexually harassed a female employee for more than two years. Whatcom County’s response to the allegations and the settlement were revealed to the public and councilmembers alike in an investigative article published by Cascade PBS on April 19.

Three female employees reported Hutchings had made sexual comments or touched them inappropriately at work. One woman, who was called “Wendy” in the article, reported her experience with Hutchings to then public works department assistant director Elizabeth Kosa in 2021. Kosa arranged a “counseling session” with Wendy, Hutchings and an unnamed “coach.” Wendy reported that Hutchings began excluding her from projects and treating her differently after the meeting. There was no follow up to her complaint until another employee came forward nearly a year later. 

Wendy reported that Hutchings would text her at all hours of the day about his personal life and she had to put up a “no hugs” sign on her desk after Hutchings repeatedly hugged her without permission. Wendy said she needed therapy and the nonstop texts caused so much stress she went to the emergency room several times for severe stomach pain, according to the Cascade PBS article. 

The county executive’s office was not made aware of the complaints until mid-October 2022 and placed Hutchings on administrative leave on October 18, 2022, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu claimed in an April 23 letter to council. 

Hutchings resigned in late October, a day after an investigator interviewed the women. Hutchings himself was never interviewed and the county never formally disciplined him. On November 1, the county and Hutchings signed a separation agreement that described Hutchings departure as a resignation and contained provisions on how the separation would be described. In January 2023, Sidhu and deputy executive Tyler Schroeder wrote a highly complimentary “letter of introduction” that presumably helped Hutchings get a new position as director of Lynden’s public works department in May 2023. 

In fall 2023, Wendy’s lawyer sent a letter seeking $400,000 compensation to George Roche, deputy civil prosecutor at the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Roche said he immediately delivered the letter to the Washington Counties Risk Pool, which held settlement authority. 

Within three days of receiving the letter from Wendy’s lawyer, Roche reached an agreement in principle to settle the complaints for $225,000. Money for the settlement was below the county’s $250,000 deductible and came out of the county’s tort fund for major settlements, Roche said.

Subsequently, Kosa was named director of the Whatcom County Public Works Department and Schroeder is set to become the director of economic development at the Port of Bellingham this month. 

In his April 23 letter to councilmembers, Sidhu took responsibility for any personnel policy violations and initially defended his “letter of introduction.” 

“Ultimately, we do not believe that a person is solely defined by their mistakes, and Mr. Hutchings had faced the very real consequences of losing his job,” Sidhu wrote in the letter.

Sidhu admitted that he had not informed council of the incident. 

The Whatcom Democrats executive board issued a public letter April 24 calling for Sidhu’s resignation.

Sidhu’s tune changed in an April 30 letter to council and all county employees, saying that he recognized the letter of recommendation was “inappropriate and misguided.”

“It clearly was an error of judgement not to contemplate its broader meaning and impact for employees, the organization and the community,” Sidhu wrote in the letter. “I’ve learned a valuable lesson that you must put aside past service when an employee fails to adhere to basic norms of conduct at the workplace … I take full responsibility for this and apologize to all who were affected directly and indirectly.”

Sidhu added the incident points to a systemic issue in sexual harassment reporting protocols, transparency and action, and that he was open to improving those policies and compliance. The county last updated its sexual harassment policy in 2022.

County council discussion 

County councilmembers spent nearly four hours April 30 grilling Roche about the case and the county’s sexual harassment policies, first in a public meeting and then in executive session where they learned more details about the case. The county’s human resources department also provided input during the meeting. 

Council members appeared unified in their unhappiness that the county administration had not informed them of the reason for Hutchings’ departure or about the settlement. Much of the discussion involved how council could improve county policies regarding sexual harassment reporting and how council could have more oversight in the process.

Councilmember Todd Donovan asked how many times the county had settled sexual harassment complaints in the past decade without informing council. In response, Roche said the answer was nuanced and complex, but that in his six years as county claims administrator, he could only recall two other harassment settlements, both of which he believed council were aware of at the time. 

Whatcom County, which has about 1,000 employees, has sent 1,572 claims to the risk pool since 1988, Roche said. The county receives liability claims through different avenues, such as being submitted to the county clerk’s office or the risk pool, and some reports don’t go to the risk pool.

Roche told council they could appoint a councilmember as one of the representatives to handle the county’s risk pool to become more involved in settlement decision-making. Whatcom County HR and legal representatives are currently on the risk pool’s board. 

“If you want more involvement, I believe this is the mechanism to get that involvement,” Roche said. 

Council could also exercise oversight of branches of government through legislative action, such as determining who has authority on budgets or projects, Roche said.

Donovan expressed concern that Wendy was put in a counseling session with Hutchings, and that he wanted council to know how well HR was operating. 

“Obviously a number of things that occurred here went outside the scope of the county’s policies,” Roche said.

In response to a question from councilmember Kaylee Galloway, Roche said nothing prevented county leaders from notifying council about the settlement. 

Councilmember Ben Elenbaas said he was “appalled” that council wasn’t given the background to Hutchings’ resignation and considered those responsible to be negligent. 

“The public has an expectation of what we do, and whether it’s right or wrong, perception is reality,” Elenbaas said. “A lot of feedback I’ve gotten is, ‘If you didn’t know about this, what else goes on in county government that you don’t know about and how can we trust that you guys are doing your job?’”

Roche emphasized council legally bears no responsibility for the decisions made in this incident. 

Elenbaas made clear that he wanted an independent investigation to determine if county employees needed to be held accountable, but did not want it to become a “political hit piece,” especially when victims were involved.

If the county prosecuting attorney’s office determined it had a conflict of interest, a special prosecutor would likely be appointed by the Whatcom County Superior Court presiding judge.

If a special prosecutor was needed, the county would need to decide how the investigation would be funded, such as the county’s tort fund. 

It is likely that an investigation into how the complaints were handled and an overlook at the county’s policies would be separate.

Council chair Barry Buchanan suggested council form a committee on the investigation.

Sidhu declined to address council during the meeting, instead pointing to the email he sent county council and staff before the meeting. 

Councilmember Jon Scanlon told council that he spent an hour talking to Wendy before the meeting and she told him she just wanted to be believed. 

“When you sign up to work for the people of Whatcom County, you should expect a work place free of sexual harassment, abuse and bullying,” Scanlon said. “When you make those reports of an incident of harassment, you should expect a clear, timely and just process that listens to you and protects you from retaliation.” 


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