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Oak Harbor settles hostile work environment claim
Oak Harbor’s insurance provider has settled a claim for damages with the former city engineer who asserted the mayor created a hostile work environment that forced him to quit.
Eric Johnston asked for $300,000 but settled for $20,000.
Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley previously said he wouldn’t agree to any kind of settlement because he felt the claim was baseless. He now says he relented because the attorneys advised him that going to trial would be much more expensive than the relatively small settlement.
In addition, Dudley stressed that none of the settlement money will come from city coffers, not even a deductible.
“It cost us nothing to part ways with Eric Johnston,” he said. “...If it would have cost the city of Oak Harbor anything, I would have fought it tooth and nail to the end.”
Oak Harbor attorney Chris Skinner, who represents Johnston, said it speaks volumes about the strength of his client’s claim that the Washington Cities Insurance Authority would make the settlement proposal after reviewing the evidence for 70 days.
Skinner is also representing former Police Chief Rick Wallace, who has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the mayor improperly fired him this summer. In that case, the insurance authority denied the initial claim for damages after just two weeks.
Dudley has ruffled a lot of feathers in the city by firing a series of administrators after taking office a year ago. He couldn’t fire Johnston, however, without cause because of his for-cause employment status.
Back when Dudley was a councilman, he and Johnston clashed on a number of occasions.
Even today, Dudley is willing to detail the list of projects he feels went wrong under Johnston’s watch, from the many errors in the Oak Harbor Street project to the inadvertent discovery of Native American remains on Pioneer Way. He claims Johnston had a problem with taking responsibility for mistakes and not being open with the council.
Johnston’s claim states that Dudley, after becoming mayor, tried to manufacture sufficient cause to terminate him. When those efforts failed because of Johnston’s exemplary record, Dudley allegedly tried to make his job unbearable, according to the claim.
The claim accuses Dudley of improperly investigating past and current projects handled by Johnston; making public statements about Johnston “of an untrue and disrespectful nature;” berating Johnston within the workplace, public settings and publications; exclusion of Johnston from meetings and communications pertinent to his job; and reassignment of his job responsibilities, among other actions.
“The actions of the Mayor left Mr. Johnston no choice but to seek other employment and resign from employment with the City of Oak Harbor,” the claim states. “This decision was made solely as a result of Mayor Dudley’s threats to terminate Mr. Johnston’s employment and the Mayor’s related, harassing behavior.”
Dudley, however, said all the accusations are contrary to fact. For example, Dudley said he can only remember criticizing Johnston once since he became mayor; he told Johnston to proofread his PowerPoint presentation that had errors.
As far as excluding Johnston from certain meetings, Dudley claims that the former mayor actually made that call after Johnston was allegedly disrespectful towards Native Americans who were working on Pioneer Way after the cultural remains were discovered. Dudley said Johnston tried to compel members of the tribe to work quicker, which upset them during a sensitive time. Dudley claims the former mayor excluded Johnston from meetings with the tribes, a practice Dudley continued after coming into office.
As for the future, Dudley said he wishes Johnston well in his new job in Bellingham. He said he’s pleased with the new city engineer and the direction of the department.
“We understand that we are human,” he said. “From now on, when we do make mistakes: A. We admit the fact. B. We apologize. C. We try to figure out how we don’t do it again.”