Whatcom County official refuses calls to resign, welcomes inquiry

Local leaders questioned handling of sexual harassment complaints and a $225,000 settlement, as revealed in a recent Cascade PBS investigation.

Satpal Sidhu poses for a photo in front of a glass entryway.

In a letter to Whatcom County Council members, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu confirmed he did not bring the issue of sexual harassment allegations against a former Public Works director before the council. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

This story was originally published by Cascadia Daily News

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu is refusing to resign following a demand from the Whatcom Democrats’ board that he step down for his handling of sexual harassment allegations against a former Public Works director.

Sidhu said he welcomed a formal inquiry into the facts of the situation, including the county’s actions in addressing misconduct complaints against former Public Works director Jon Hutchings, an associated $225,000 settlement to a female employee and writing a glowing letter of introduction for Hutchings, who moved to a similar role for the City of Lynden. 

The latest public comments cap a week of revelations, political fallout and rebuttal stemming from the county misconduct scandal, first revealed by a Cascade PBS investigation on April 19. 

On Tuesday, several County Council members confirmed to Cascadia Daily News that they were left in the dark about Sidhu’s handling of the allegations and the settlement, raising questions of accountability and oversight. Only county human resources and legal teams were involved in decisions, Sidhu confirmed. 

“The Executive never informed Council about the matter, never scheduled an executive session to discuss it as a personnel matter, and never informed us about the fund the settlement was paid out of,” Council Member Todd Donovan told CDN. 

Late Wednesday, Whatcom Democrats’ Executive Board called for Sidhu’s resignation, stating in an open letter that his actions were “indefensible” and “betray basic shared values.” The county executive position is nonpartisan, but Whatcom Democrats had previously endorsed Sidhu in his 2023 campaign for re-election. 

“We invite Democratic elected officials to weigh conscience and basic values against party loyalty and political expediency and join us in calling for a resignation,” the Democrats’ letter stated. “Apart from a courageous minority, the other party refuses to hold its own elected officials accountable.”  

On Thursday, Sidhu stated that he would not step down and the Democrats’ letter included numerous factual errors. 

“I welcome calls for more clarity and transparency around this situation, and if the County Council wants to conduct an inquiry, bring more light to the situation and assess the facts, I will fully support that,” Sidhu said in a prepared statement.  

“However, I have no intention of resigning in response to the Whatcom Democrats’ Executive Board’s letter, which is based on incomplete information and misrepresentation of the facts.”

Council members were blindsided 

Sidhu, in the letter to council members Tuesday, confirmed that he did not bring the issue before the council, but instead worked alongside the county’s human resources and legal teams to ensure county policies and procedures were followed.  

“We acknowledge that Council did not participate nor make decisions on the outcome of the situation outlined in the recent article. The Executive, through HR, Legal, and staff is in charge of making personnel decisions and ensuring policies are followed. We take this responsibility very seriously and I want to assure you that the unique facts of the situation and timing of decisions played a role in how it was ultimately handled. Always with the goal of supporting staff and the county as a whole,” Sidhu stated in the letter. 

Instead, the county helped Hutchings secure a new position with a glowing “letter of introduction” to the City of Lynden, where Hutchings now works as the public works director. 

Hutchings was confirmed by the Lynden City Council as public works director in May 2023. On Tuesday, Lynden City Administrator John Williams said the city was not aware of any allegations against Hutchings until it was first reported by Cascade PBS. 

“The City hired Mr. Hutchings in June 2023, following a thorough hiring and background check process. This process included background checks conducted by both internal and external agencies. No indications of any misconduct allegations against Mr. Hutchings were found in any of the background checks. 

“Since then, the City has learned that an investigation and review was recently concluded by the County, which found that Mr. Hutchings did not violate County policies against sexual harassment,” he said. 

The county’s outside investigation was never finalized, and “absent a response” from Hutchings, the county declined to issue any findings, according to a letter sent by the county to Hutchings on Feb. 20, 2024 and obtained by CDN. 

In his prepared letter to the council Tuesday, Sidhu stood by the content of the Hutchings’ letter of introduction, which he called a “difficult” decision. 

“Ultimately, we do not believe that a person is solely defined by their mistakes, and Mr. Hutchings had faced the very real consequence of losing his job,” Sidhu stated. “We understand that not everyone will agree with our decision.” 

The November settlement, paid with money in the county’s Tort Fund, was authorized by the prosecuting attorney’s office, the county confirmed. The county manages liabilities with other counties through the Washington Counties Risk Pool, and the settlement was within Whatcom’s $250,000 deductible. 

Jed Holmes, the Executive’s spokesperson, noted that the executive is not involved in negotiations or approving settlements and does not have authority to pay out of the county’s Tort Fund. 

Speaking with CDN on Wednesday, Donovan said that he was unsure of when or if such consultation for is required or discretionary, particularly with personnel matters that are not litigation. 

“That’s a question for the attorneys,” he said. 

Donovan raised the issue of the executive’s handling of the actions before and after Hutchings’ departure at the council’s meeting on Tuesday, April 23. 

“What I’m seeing in the email that Satpal sent to us is not consistent with what we’ve been hearing from our attorney, who was the attorney on the settlement, which raises some awkward questions,” Donovan said. 

He said that there might be a need to consider some things in the county’s charter with regards to where the council is liable for human-resource issues. 

“There was a failure here and I think we are in the dark about how this happened,” he said. 

A ‘Name Clearing Hearing’ 

Tuesday’s letter from Sidhu detailed the county’s actions after the executive office learned of the allegations. 

He said when the office was made aware of the complaints, “we took swift action.” Hutchings was placed on administrative leave on Oct. 18, 2022 and an independent investigator was retained by the county. Once the investigation was completed, the county adjudicated the complaint. 

After receiving multiple public record requests in 2023 targeting material related to the allegations, the county invited Hutchings to participate in a “Name Clearing Hearing.” 

Hutchings’ comments in the hearing on Jan. 31 were later described in an email from the county to him as “impactful,” “meaningful” and “emotional.”  

“You told us in detail about many issues you were contending with in your personal life throughout all times relevant to the allegations,” the email states. “If the County would have been aware of those circumstances in your personal life, when they were occurring, the County would have provided you typical employee support in the form of professional employee assistance services and options for a leave of absence.” 

Hutchings comments were found to be “mitigating,” though not entirely so. Based on the evidence presented, the county determined that he was in “some degree” of violation of its code of conduct. However, the email stated that there was not sufficient evidence to rise to the level of harassment. 

“We now consider the complaints levied against you to be resolved,” the county stated in the email. 

Refusal to resign 

Whatcom Democrats’ Executive Board demanded that Sidhu step down for his handling of the sexual harassment allegations against Hutchings. 

The open letter issued Wednesday also stated hundreds of public employees have had to work in an environment that “fails to protect them from harassment because administrators — both appointed and elected — place their relationships with each other ahead of their duty to employees and the public.” 

Holmes said Whatcom Democrats Executive Board’s statement inaccurately reflects the information shared by the executive in his letter to the council. 

“Executive Sidhu is disappointed that the Executive Board of the Whatcom Democrats adopted a statement with factual errors,” Holmes said. “Situations such as these are always nuanced and with many layers of complexity, and political rhetoric does not help bring clarity.” 

The letter by the Democrats states that the executive’s actions “undermine trust in his ability to ensure the level of change needed to prevent this from happening in the future.” 

It goes on to accuse the executive and his team of covering up the conduct that led to Hutchings’ departure and continued to do so by providing him with the letter of recommendation. 

“We find these actions indefensible,” the letter from Whatcom Democrats stated. “The executive — who signed the key documents — was an active participant in covering up sexual harassment of employees.” 

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