Whatcom County Council votes to investigate handling of sexual harassment claim

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Members of the Whatcom County Council voted unanimously in a special meeting Tuesday to conduct an independent investigation into a 2022 sexual harassment settlement involving former Public Works Department Director Jon Hutchings, an incident that came to light in a recent Cascade PBS report.

County Executive Satpal Sidhu on Monday sent the County Council and all county employees an email apologizing for his role in the incident, which involved writing a “letter of introduction” for Hutchings that helped him get a job as public works director in Lynden.

Sidhu spoke to the council Tuesday but didn’t elaborate on his previous statements.

“I have already said in the email what I wanted to say, but thank you for the opportunity,” Sidhu said.

Last week, Sidhu rejected a call for his resignation from the Whatcom County Democratic Party leadership, promising greater transparency in government and pledging to rebuild the trust of the council, the public and county workers.

Sidhu said that he learned of the allegations only just before Hutchings resigned from his job to avoid being fired, and Sidhu provided the reference because of Hutchings’ service record. He now regrets writing that letter.

Councilmember Ben Elenbaas said the public deserves to know what happened and why, so that it doesn’t happen again.

“I think the ball was dropped here on numerous fronts, and I want to know more about that. I want to hold folks accountable that need to be held accountable. But what I do not want is for this to turn into a dog and pony show,” he said.

Elenbaas said he was “appalled” at how the incident was handled and that the County Council wasn’t informed.

“It shows an extreme lack of judgment. It shows almost negligence that that (information) wasn’t shared with us,” Elenbaas said.

In their special session Tuesday, council members heard from their attorney, George Roche, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney in the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office. Roche handled the Hutchings incident for the county’s Human Resources Department.

Roche told council members that the issue was handled in Human Resources because it involved issues of privacy, confidentiality and potential liability if the names of Hutchings’ accusers and witnesses were revealed.

During the meeting, Roche described the county’s “risk pool,” a form of self-insurance that Whatcom County and 23 others participate in. There’s a $20 million cap on payouts and a $250,000 deductible, Roche told the council.

“How pervasive are these incidents that we have to make these payouts?” Councilman Todd Donovan said.

Roche could list only one, a settlement linked to the 2019 arrest of a Whatcom County Jail corrections deputy for having sex with an inmate.

Councilman Jon Scanlon said he spoke with the employee who faced the brunt of Hutchings’ harassment as described in the April 19 Cascade PBS report.

“When you sign up to work for Whatcom County, you should experience a workplace that’s free of harassment and bullying,” Scanlon said.

Council Chairman Barry Buchanan suggested that the council form a temporary committee to decide the scope of the investigation and how it will more forward, but no action was taken.

Members moved to their conference room for a private discussion of the issue that lasted about 90 minutes. No announcement was made.