Tuesday, June 7, 2016

This time, it's Human Resources Director Heather Lowe resigning

Posted By and on Tue, Jun 7, 2016 at 4:05 PM

First, Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson resigned. Then, City Attorney Nancy Isserlis followed suit.

Heather Lowe, outgoing human resources director
  • Heather Lowe, outgoing human resources director
Now, another key member of Mayor David Condon's leadership team has announced she's departing the city: Human Resources Director Heather Lowe. All three were listed as witnesses that independent investigator Kris Cappel wanted to interview about the circumstances surrounding the ouster of Police Chief Frank Straub. 

Lowe, unlike Jacobson or Isserlis, had agreed to be interviewed by Cappel. And, according to the press release sent out today, Lowe had been recruited by another city. City Spokesman Brian Coddington says she's moving to a city in Southern California, but can't be more specific as that city hasn't announced it yet.

In her resignation letter dated June 2, but received by the city today, Lowe praised Condon's administration.

"Thank you for allowing me to serve under your leadership in your administration," Lowe says. "Your leadership, specifically your empowerment of your executive team, has been a wonderful environment to grow, learn and succeed."

She said her last day would be August 19. 

The mayor's statement is similarly positive. 
“Heather Lowe has been a passionate advocate for city employees and the services they provide  The city, with her leadership in human resources, has worked with its labor groups to make government more innovative, improved training and, in partnership with Civil Service, advanced new recruitment initiatives to grow diversity as we lay the groundwork for a 21st Century workforce. I very much appreciate Heather’s dedication and contributions. Her recruitment by another city speaks highly of the work she has done for Spokane.”
But while Condon has praised Lowe, she's become a central figure in multiple controversies, particularly lately.

For example:

• Lowe was being investigated by Cappel for how the city handled the Straub situation.

• Lowe had also created complications for the Straub investigation back in February, when she assured David Lewis, president of the Managerial and Professional Association, that participation in the investigation was voluntary, after interim Police Chief Rick Dobrow had told police department employees the investigation was mandatory

• The Human Resources department was being blamed for screwing up the visa process for the police ombudsman the city had selected

"We should have been able to get this paperwork done early. It was just a matter of jumping through some hoops," Ombudsman Commission Chair Deb Conklin said. "HR did not get the job done."

• A Facebook photograph of Lowe, a white woman, dressed as a Japanese Geisha has been circulating in emails, drawing condemnation from local activists

• In 2014, the city of Spokane lost a lawsuit to Liane Carlson, a former HR employee whose lawyer successfully argued in the case that Lowe wrongly dismissed her after she suffered a stroke.

• In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Sonya O'Brien, an operator at the city's wastewater treatment plant, was subject to a "hostile and intimidating" work environment. The EEOC found that HR's attempts to resolve the situation were "ineffective" and it improperly released documents during its investigation. 

• Blaine Stum, who until recently had served as the legislative aide for former Councilman Jon Synder and Councilman Breean Beggs, recently gathered nearly 700 pages of public records and the sum of nearly five years of harassment probes. His lengthy case-by-case analysis highlighted what he saw as delayed responses, spotty record-keeping and surface-level investigations. 

"I guess the primary overarching thing that concerned me was that there was no real consistency, whether it was following best practices or adhering the city’s own administrative policies," Stum says. 

On Friday, Stum sent out an open letter to the mayor making his dissatisfaction with the human resources department public. It highlights anecdotes like this one:
A young woman alleged that a fellow employee had been stalking her for weeks. The description of the alleged behavior is disturbing to read: following her, waiting hours for her to get off work, looking up her schedule and coming in on days off to catch her on shift... These are not allegations to be taken lightly. Yet the little documentation from human resource staff that does exist on this incident suggests that this is exactly what happened.

Rather than conduct an investigation into these allegations, supervisors and human resources figured the situation was “working itself out” and let it continue to the point that the complainant asked for a meeting with security staff. This response is not only inconsistent with best practice, but potentially dangerous. It is well known that stalking has the ability to escalate, and sometimes violently. That it did not escalate in this case may have been pure luck. That is not something we can, or should, bet on when it comes to the welfare of employees
Stum's letter placed much of the blame on the mayor and City Administrator Theresa Sanders. 
Frankly, it's hard to find a charitable explanation for the complete lack of leadership on this from you or Theresa. Perhaps neither of you were aware of all these cases, or the problems underlying them. But then, why were you not aware? As the administrative heads of our city, it is part of your job to not only know these about these issues, but take concrete steps to address them. The second possible explanation is even less flattering: that you both knew but simply did not care enough to take real, concrete actions to help your employees. I hesitate to attribute the manifold documented failures to this, but I also have a hard time believing you were not aware of these problems.
Stum, who left the city last week to pursue graduate school, says he has not heard back from the mayor yet about the concerns he raised. 

Lowe's is not the only high-profile resignation this week. Sam Song, the former director of Riverfront Park who the mayor passed over and later hired Jon Moog, has resigned as Assistant Riverfront Park Director. His last day will be July 1. 

Heather Lowe resignation letter

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