Former Lynden staffers accuse administrator of gender discrimination

Three former Lynden city employees have filed a gender discrimination claim, saying City Administrator Mike Martin created a hostile work environment.
Three former Lynden city employees have filed a gender discrimination claim, saying City Administrator Mike Martin created a hostile work environment. jdonaldson@bhamherald.com

At least three of the city’s former department heads — all of them women — have accused City Administrator Mike Martin of gender discrimination. Martin would not comment Wednesday on the allegations, other than to say, “I’m very confident truth will prevail.”

Amy Harksell, the city’s planning director and a 24-year city employee, resigned Friday, June 10, said Vanessa Roebuck, the city’s human resources manager. Harksell has filed a claim against the city, the mayor and Martin, a legal move that is a precursor to a lawsuit.

Former Finance Director Teresa Camfield and former Human Resources Manager Linda Peterson also are part of the claim alleging gender discrimination. The city of Lynden provided the claim in response to a records request filed by The Bellingham Herald. The city says more documents will be released.

Camfield and Peterson both retired in June 2014, the claim shows. Camfield had been at the city for 17 years; Peterson for nearly seven. Their retirements came about two years earlier than anticipated, the claim says.

Harksell was on medical leave for about a month prior to her resignation, the claim says, adding that her doctor recommend she take the leave due to her “physical and emotional reaction to the stress of the ongoing discrimination and retaliation against her.” At the time she was making $93,000 a year.

All three women say in the complaint that Martin created a hostile work environment.

I’m going to hold off on any comments regarding this until that investigation is complete.

Mayor Scott Korthuis

The three women are seeking damages from the city totaling $3.85 million. The amounts were calculated based on the wages and benefits they would have earned had they stayed and retired as planned, plus claims for emotional distress.

Mayor Scott Korthuis hired Martin, who started in August 2013 at a salary of $120,000. He would not comment on the allegations against Martin nor would he address why Martin was not on leave while the investigation is underway.

“I’m going to hold off on any comments regarding this until that investigation is complete,” Korthuis said.

The claim

The three women, in the claim, make similar accusations that Martin dismissed their work or expertise, often requiring a male employee to back up their account before the information would be accepted by Martin. Both Camfield and Peterson accuse Martin of berating them for working past 5 p.m. despite them being on salary, while allowing male employees to use their own judgment when deciding when to leave, the claim says.

The claim describes one of the first meetings Martin held after his hiring, where he allegedly told department heads they could either “lick the boot or wear the boot.” The statement, the claim said, made clear “that he planned to ‘wear the boot.’”

In a meeting with department heads in late October 2013, Martin allegedly told a story about “Noreen,” a girl he knew in high school whom he “hated” because she was “too smart” and “had all the answers,” the claim says, adding that Martin told the story while looking at Camfield and Harksell. The claim says Martin regularly referred to Harksell as “Noreen” afterward.

In Peterson’s statement, the former human resources manager says Martin asked her to prepare a panel interview for an open information technology position. After looking over the materials that Peterson prepared, her claim says, Martin dismissed her and conducted the interview himself without using her materials.

Camfield’s statement also says she began asking for a third employee to sit in on meetings between her and Martin, and that she would spend “inordinate amounts of time” crafting what should have been simple emails to Martin to avoid writing something he “could twist and use against her later.”

Camfield says she told Korthuis about Martin’s behavior in October 2013, according to the claim.

“I hired him and I have to stand behind him,” she said Korthuis responded, according to the claim.

Camfield said she once again brought up her concerns in an exit interview with Korthuis, as did Peterson. Neither were aware of any investigation into their complaints, the claim says.

Harksell’s resignation came more than three months after she filed a formal complaint about Martin, dated March 2, 2016, accusing him of dismissing projects Harksell was spearheading and responding more favorably to male employees on similar topics. Harksell, in her complaint, also says she was removed from the hiring process of an employee in her department, and replaced with a male employee from another department to sit in on the interviews.

City investigations

According to other city documents obtained by The Herald, soon after receiving Harksell’s March 2 letter the city launched an investigation. The city hired Ephrata-based Clear Risk Solutions, Lynden’s insurance provider, to investigate the claims.

Harksell’s own behavior was called into question during the investigation, according to a March 28 letter from Korthuis to Harksell. The letter claims Harksell approached two staff members following their interviews with the investigator and questioned them about their statements. Harksell, Korthuis’ letter states, then made an “emotional display,” left City Hall and later canceled a planning commission meeting scheduled for that night.

Korthuis then expanded the investigation to include Harksell’s “actions and behaviors regarding the treatment of City employees.”

“Specifically, it is alleged your actions and behaviors have been creating a hostile working environment for City employees,” Korthuis’ letter goes on to say.

Three weeks later, Harksell’s attorney Carrie Coppinger Carter declined to allow the city’s investigator to interview her client, writing in a letter to Clear Risk Solutions that the investigation had “turned retaliatory in nature” when the city began investigating Harksell’s behavior rather than Martin’s.

The Clear Risk Solutions investigation wasn’t the first time the city looked into Martin’s behavior. In October 2015 the city hired an outside company to conduct a performance evaluation of Martin, taking anonymous statements from other employees about the administrator’s behavior, according to a March 4, 2016, letter from Korthuis to Coppinger Carter.

Korthuis said Finance Director Sirke Salminen, a woman, was removed from Martin’s supervision and is now reporting to him as a result of that evaluation.

Earlier this month, the city switched from Clear Risk Solutions and hired Seattle attorney Barbara Kastama to conduct the investigation at an hourly rate of $350. That investigation is expected to be complete by July 1, Korthuis said.

Korthuis said he took the complaints seriously.

“Allegations are serious and that’s why I’ve gone actually to a third party as opposed to someone affiliated with the city,” he said. “I’m doing everything in my power to do what is best for the city for the long haul.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan