Whatcom County to investigate handling of sexual harassment case

The county executive acknowledged an “error in judgment” after a Cascade PBS report revealed a letter supporting the accused former director.

Two County Council members sit behind a wooden desk during a meeting.

Whatcom County Council members Barry Buchanan, left, and Ben Elenbaas speak during a special county council meeting Tuesday, April 30. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

This story was originally published by Cascadia Daily News.

The Whatcom County Council unanimously voted on Tuesday to launch a formal investigation into the county’s handling of sexual harassment and retaliation allegations against a former Public Works director and subsequent settlement of $225,000 to a female employee.

“The system needs to be looked at from stem to stern,” Chairman Barry Buchanan said ahead of the vote.

During the special session on Tuesday, April 30, Council members openly struggled with understanding the scope and scale of the problem, as well as what oversight — if any — the Council has on such personnel matters and complaints. Members had told Cascadia Daily News last week they were unaware of all of it.

Tuesday’s meeting was the latest chapter in a 10-day firestorm of statements, rebuttals and, now, official actions as county leaders grapple with calls for change and more transparency in the wake of a Cascade PBS investigation.

“You’ve made all of our jobs harder by not communicating,” Council member Ben Elenbaas told members of the county administration. “The public questions our abilities to do our jobs in the future.”

The Council repeatedly voiced frustration with the county prosecutor’s office and County Executive Satpal Sidhu for keeping them in the dark about the allegations from several women about former Public Works Director Jon Hutchings and the county’s response, as well as the 2023 settlement.

In a letter to Council members last week, Sidhu 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. 

Council members underscored their concerns about not having a clear understanding of oversight or responsibility when complaints deemed significant are made to human resources, or when payouts are made.

Council members and the general public became aware of the county’s handling of Hutchings’ resignation — including a glowing “letter of introduction” to potential employers — in a Cascade PBS investigative story published on April 19. 

On Monday, facing continued pressure from the public, Sidhu stated the county’s handling of the allegations points toward “systemic issues in reporting protocols, transparency and action steps.” Sidhu, who had initially defended his actions in the matter, apologized for writing the letter in his statement on Monday, calling it an error of judgment.

However, George Roche, speaking on behalf of the prosecutor’s office on Tuesday, said, “We’ve got good policies and bad humans.”

Roche previously handled the Hutchings incident for the county’s Human Resources Department. He told Council members Tuesday that his dual role did not present a conflict of interest.

Sidhu largely sat quietly through the three-hour meeting, in which Roche took a lead role addressing the Council. Sidhu had agreed to an interview with a CDN reporter following the special meeting, but on Tuesday he changed his mind, said county spokesperson Jed Holmes.

While Roche said the Council had no legal liability in the situation, Council members pointed out that their constituents feel strongly about accountability.

“A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten is: ‘Well, if you don’t know about any of this, what else goes on in county government that you don’t know about and how can we trust you guys are doing your job?’” Elenbaas said.

Council member Todd Donovan attempted to get a solid sense of how pervasive such harassment incidents were within the county government and how often the county was making payouts connected to personnel issues. Ultimately, he said he wanted to know “How is our HR system working or not working that we don’t know about as a Council?” 

Roche failed to provide a direct answer to the question, saying “Each one of those cases takes a different course.”

He did say there were a variety of “educational opportunities” the county experienced during the process that couldn’t be discussed in the public forum.

In the Hutchings incident, Roche explained that the settlement was reached within 72 hours of the county receiving a “threatening letter” from the complainant’s lawyer alleging a pattern of harassment and discrimination that the county failed to properly address.

That letter alleges that the county protected Hutchings despite his creation of a hostile work environment, sexually harassing multiple employees and retaliating against the woman who received the settlement for reporting harassment to Human Resources.

Multiple times throughout the meeting, Roche explained to the Council that in order for him to share a more complete picture of the situation, they would need to be in an executive session.

Members voted 5-1 to go into executive session due to “potential legal liabilities.” Council member Donovan was not present for that vote; Jon Scanlon was the only dissenter.

Earlier in the meeting, Scanlon explained that he had spoken with the woman who received the settlement and that she’d expressed her desire — like so many victims have — to simply be believed.

Hutchings signed a letter of resignation in early November 2022 and was hired into a similar role in Lynden in summer 2023.

The Council is expected to present the scope and process for the outside investigation at the next regular meeting on May 7.

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