Bellingham City Court inquiry concludes

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An independent investigation into working conditions at Bellingham City Court found few or no breaches of law or policy.

The survey, led by Sarah L. Wixson of Stokes Lawrence, released its 31-page report on Tuesday, February 1.

Wixson’s investigation examined allegations by court employees of a hostile work environment, retaliation, discrimination based on age and religion, and violations of wage, hour and medical confidentiality laws by the Presiding Judge Debra Lev, Court Administrator Darlene Peterson, Deputy Court Administrator Tami Bennett and Jail Alternative Program Director Kathy Smith.

Wixson published 22 conclusionsall but two were not found to violate law or policy.

In a statement posted on the Municipal Court’s website on Friday, February 4, Lev said she was honored to serve the community as an elected judge for the past 20 years. She said it was her duty to “follow the rule of law and long-standing constitutional principles, including the separation of powers doctrine which recognizes three independent and equal branches of government”.

Lev ran unopposed and was elected for a further four-year term as the sole judge of the city’s Municipal Court in 2021.

Bellingham City Court has jurisdiction over breaches of the Bellingham Municipal Code, including charges of criminal offenses and civil offenses. Common cases include assault, malicious mischief, theft, driving under the influence, trespassing, breach of protection orders, traffic and parking violations.

Lev said Wixson’s investigation showed “concerns expressed by employees did not justify their departure.”

“This independent investigation has reinforced that open, transparent and honest communication is an integral part of productive working relationships,” read Lev’s statement on Friday. “I want to assure you that Bellingham Municipal Court has a strong and resilient team, and that we will continue to take all necessary steps to protect the safety of our Court and serve the community.”

The town of Bellingham and Lev reached a mediated settlement agreement in late September that resolved a lawsuit Lev had filed in late May.

Debra Lev equipped, uploaded 2022.jpeg
Bellingham Municipal Court Presiding Judge Debra Lev ran unopposed and was elected to serve another four-year term as the city’s sole municipal court judge in 2021. City of Bellingham Courtesy of the Bellingham Herald

The settlement was unanimously ratified and confirmed by Bellingham City Council at the end of September. The five-page agreement, dated Sept. 23, sets out general rules that apply to who has jurisdiction over the city’s Municipal Court, which governs court employees and the processes for filing and investigating complaints. in a working environment.

Within the framework of the regulationthe city paid all costs and fees for the investigation, which was conducted by an independent investigator suggested by the Washington State Supreme Court, and for the trial.

In her statement on Friday, Lev said the issues were resolved amicably and that she looks forward to meetings with Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and that the city’s three separate branches of government are working together. collaboration.

In a prepared statement sent to the Bellingham Herald, Fleetwood said: ‘I have acted on credible reports of workplace misconduct and have authorized an independent investigation to examine these allegations. My sole interest was to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for all employees.

Dispute history

Lev’s May 27 lawsuit was filed in Whatcom County Superior Court alleged that the city’s investigations into the working conditions of the courts violated the separation of powers between branches of government.

The City Court closed from May 28 to June 1 when six former court employees alleged intolerable working conditions and walked off the job.

In early June, a Skagit County Superior Court judge granted a temporary injunction in Lev’s lawsuit, preventing the city from compelling court staff to participate in the investigation. It also prevented the city from sanctioning, firing, suspending or denying employees access to court buildings or computer accounts, according to Whatcom County Superior Court records.

The union representing the employees of the municipal court who walked off filed a unfair labor practice complaintalleging multiple violations of state law, a grievance alleging multiple issuesa discrimination complaint to the City of Bellingham and a complaint to the Washington State Commission on Judicial Ethics.

At the end of June, an independent investigation commissioned by the city and the mayor that was carried out without the participation of Lev and other members of the management of the municipal court found evidence to support employee claims labor law violations and a toxic work environment.

Court workers who had raised concerns about their working conditions refused to return to work, and Lev fired them on July 12. In exchange for the union withdrawing the unfair labor practice complaint, as well as the discrimination complaint, the city agreed in late July to find or attempt to find the terminated court employees comparable jobs in other municipal services. All employees were offered comparable positions and all but one elected to remain as city employees, according to Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich.

The results

The 31-page report details friction and disputes between the employees who walked off the job and Peterson, Bennett and Smith.

Wixson discovered that Peterson had disclosed medical information relating to an employee’s broken ankle in a “reply all” email response and that Peterson had made comments regarding certain employees’ religion or lack thereof, but the comments did not create a hostile work environment or impact an employee’s work or opportunities for advancement, the report said.

But Wixson found that many of the employee concerns did not rise to the level of adverse employment action, retaliation, or that a hostile work environment had been created.

The group of employees who walked off the job were described as “mean girls” by Peterson and there were concerns about the behavior of the group, including excluding other employees from court. But employees felt the restrictions placed on them on personal conversations, being ignored for job promotions and how others spoke to them were the result of retaliation for complaints and issues they had raised, the report said.

This story was originally published February 7, 2022 5:00 a.m.

CORRECTION: The summary of findings document was updated on February 9, 2022, after the court redacted some employee names.

Corrected February 9, 2022

Journalist Denver Pratt joined the Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers the courts, criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.

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