Report: Lynden city administrator didn’t discriminate against female workers

Lynden City Hall
Lynden City Hall The Bellingham Herald

City Administrator Mike Martin did not discriminate against three former female city employees, according to a report following an internal investigation by a city-hired private attorney.

Former employees Amy Harksell, Linda Peterson and Teresa Camfield filed a complaint in mid-June against the city, Mayor Scott Korthuis and Martin, accusing Martin of creating a hostile work environment through age and gender discrimination. The complaint is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The city had hired Seattle attorney Barbara Kastama four days before the claim was filed — investigations into Martin’s behavior extend as far back as October 2015, when Korthuis hired a private mediator to conduct a performance evaluation on Martin.

Kastama worked at an hourly rate of $350; an invoice dated June 30 billed Lynden for $54,400 for the work. City Clerk Pam Brown said she believed another invoice was on the way.

Kastama’s investigation is separate from the claim the three women have filed via Bellingham attorney Carrie Coppinger Carter; it only reflects Kastama’s findings on behalf of the city.

The two-month investigation produced a 43-page report, which The Bellingham Herald obtained through a public records request, along with the invoice.

She investigated a total of four specific allegations: one each by Peterson, Camfield and Harksell that Martin treated them less favorably than male and younger employees and subjected them to harassment, and another by Harksell that Martin and Korthuis retaliated against her when she first complained of the alleged harassment.

The report says Kastama found no evidence that the allegations are true, writing “the facts do not substantiate” gender and age discrimination against the three women, or retaliation toward Harksell.

Martin responded to the report’s findings in an email Tuesday afternoon.

“This has been tough on everyone including Amy, Teresa and Linda, I’m sure,” he said. “Now it’s time to move on and put this behind us.”

Coppinger Carter, in a written statement Tuesday evening, dismissed Kastama’s findings.

“Interestingly, Ms. Kastama’s report deliberately avoids analyzing the City of Lynden’s legal liability or the City’s failure to address our clients’ complaints regarding the City Administrator’s treatment when initially raised prior to,” the statement says. “As such, Ms. Kastama’s report will have no effect on our clients’ claims.”

Coppinger Carter added that she anticipated filing a complaint for damages in Whatcom County Superior Court later this month.

“We’re very encouraged by the report,” Korthuis said Tuesday. He kept his comments limited, noting the possibility of further litigation.

The original claim

Camfield, 63, served as the city’s finance director for 17 years, and Peterson, 73, was the human resources manager for seven. They both resigned in 2014, two years earlier than planned, according to their complaint.

Harksell, 46, who had been at the city for 24 years, worked as the planning director before resigning on June 10. She had been on medical leave for about a month before her resignation. Her doctor, the claim says, recommended she resign because of her “physical and emotional reaction to the stress of the ongoing discrimination and retaliation against her.”

In the claim, all three women accuse Martin of questioning their expertise and said he would often ask male employees to sign off on their work before accepting it. The claim also says he would often chastise salaried female employees for working beyond 5 p.m., but let male employees manage their own hours.

Another instance laid out in Harksell’s section of the claim accuses Martin of repeatedly referring to Harksell as “Noreen.” The claim says Martin, in a meeting soon after his hiring in August 2013, told employees a story about a Noreen from Martin’s high school class whom he “hated” for being “too smart” and having “all the answers.”

The women are asking for a total of $3.85 million in damages from the city. The amount is based on the wages and benefits the women say they would have collected had they stayed and retired as planned, plus claims for emotional distress.

Kastama’s report

During the course of her investigation, Kastama interviewed 32 people, mostly current city employees. She also interviewed a former city planner and Sheri Russell, a consultant and mediator with Bellingham Mediation who conducted Martin’s performance evaluation in October 2015.

Coppinger Carter, the attorney representing Harksell, Peterson and Camfield, declined Kastama’s request to interview the women, explaining that Harksell had already been interviewed in previous investigations of Martin. Coppinger Carter added in an email that information about Peterson and Camfield could be found in notes from their exit interviews.

Kastama concluded that all allegations against Martin were not supported by evidence gathered in the interviews and city documentation. Statements the women accused Martin of making — like telling them to go home at 5 p.m., or that they “lacked initiative” — were gender and age-neutral statements.

“There is no fact that suggests that they are other than negative feedback about her job performance,” Kastama wrote under the section outlining Peterson’s claims. Similar statements appeared throughout the report.

In the report, Martin also responded specifically to Harksell’s claim that he referred to her as “Noreen.”

Martin, Kastama wrote, intended the joke to be self-deprecating, adding that Noreen had been the smartest student in class and that Martin had been one of the “dumb kids.”

With the city’s investigation complete, Korthuis said Tuesday he was formulating a plan to “make sure things are being done properly for the city,” to mitigate similar harassment claims. He would not comment further on specifics.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

Read the report

▪  Here’s the final report on the investigation into Lynden City Administrator Mike Martin’s conduct.

▪  Here’s an explanation of the redactions in the final report on the investigation.

▪  Here’s the response from the attorney representing three women in a lawsuit against the city.