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Sheriff fights to protect deputy files

A proposal to move sheriff’s deputy files into the county’s human resources office was kiboshed by the county’s two Republican commissioners during Wednesday’s work session.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, the board’s sole Democrat, argued that keeping personnel files in different offices could open the county commission up to costly lawsuits.

Sheriff Mark Brown, backed by county Prosecutor Greg Banks, said he had the right to protect his deputies files as an elected official.

“I want to keep my employees’ personnel files under my control — they’re my employees,” Brown said.

“It’s not a reflection on our human resources department. I’m not hiding anything from you or the public or anyone else. I hope you would honor my request. It’s very important to me.”

Commissioners discussed the issue as part of adopting the human resources policy manual. They agreed to move forward with the policy of allowing for the sheriff and other elected officials to house their own personnel files.

Traditionally, Island County’s elected officials, including the sheriff and prosecutor, have kept their employee personnel files within their own departments. Statewide, most counties with elected officials hold their own files, according to Budget Director Elaine Marlow.

“This is not an uncommon conversation,” Marlow said.

Human Resources Director Melanie Bacon said that she was concerned that there were multiple “official” personnel files. Bacon said in the case of sheriff’s deputies, a file is kept in human resources, civil service and the sheriff’s office.

“It’s always problematic to have more than one official personnel file,” Bacon said. “They do come to me thinking that I have info for them and that I can access info, and I can’t.”

Brown argued that as an elected official, he should have the right to manage — and protect — his own personnel files.

Republican Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan said that, having worked as a law enforcement officer, he could confirm the sheriff’s concerns about the importance of keeping deputy information as safe as possible.

“One thing we were very concerned about is that our personal records would could get in the hands of people who didn’t need that information,” Vaughan said. “Officers put people in jail. … We were concerned about our private information getting into the wrong hands and suffering some kind of retribution.”

When asked, Brown said that he would not allow the commissioners the full access to files they would experience through human resources department.

“I would ask some qualifying questions,” Brown said.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, also a Republican, agreed that the sheriff had the right to protect his deputies — even against county commissioners.

“Part of the reason there are concerns there are three commissioners that would have full access to law and justice personnel. … There’s a potential for additional exposure that the sheriff is trying to protect against,” Johnson said. “He wants to protect against people who may sit in this seat who may not always make the best decisions.”

Price Johnson said that she wanted to meet her obligation to the public and those who work for the county in ensuring the county would not be liable for discrepancies in personnel file retention when the human resources department cannot ensure compliance.

“The reason I supported this language was not a reflection about the work,” Price Johnson said. “If a document is mishandled it’s our responsibility. There’s the potential of a problem, and that’s what I’m trying to circumvent.”

Banks said that the nature of the complaint would determine who would be liable in such a lawsuit and that the division of the department should be respected.

“There is some soloing built in, and that is the structure that we have in the state of Washington,” Banks said. “This board has no authority to discipline anyone who works for me or the sheriff. I hate to be involved in one of these turf wars, but there’s a boundary, and I’m here to speak in defense of that boundary.”

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