County Tempests Continue Unresolved

Recent allegations that County Administrator Liane Richardson was asking employees to alter how she added money to her paycheck in a way not authorized by her employment contract came to light thanks to a county employee whistleblower, backed by the AFSCME union. An “outside investigation” was launched into this incident, overseen by County Counsel Stephen Dingle, but county documents appear to indicate Richardson should have been aware that what she was doing was improper.

As a result of the whistleblowing the county administrator placed herself on paid administrative leave. In a July 26 letter to the board, the AFSCME union questioned Dingle’s ability to impartially oversee the investigation, given that Dingle and Richardson worked closely together in the past, that Richardson consulted with Dingle on her payments and that Dingle asked for a 14 percent raise at the same time Richardson asked for her $20,000 raise.

In a statement, Dingle defended his overseeing of the outside investigation and said that it would be “inappropriate to disclose facts specific to any investigation before the investigation is completed, potentially compromising the investigation itself or calling into question the integrity of the investigation once completed.”

It is not clear why Richardson, whose base salary is more than $150,000 a year, sought such a large wage increase. County records show that Liane Inkster Richardson and Mark A. Richardson filed for dissolution of marriage on May 2, 2013.

When former commissioner Rob Handy was investigated for ethics violations that were later deemed unfounded, he was locked out of his office and from his county emails. EW asked if Richardson has similarly been locked out. County spokesperson Anne Marie Levis says, “For anyone on administrative leave, the practice of the county is to restrict access to county resources such as email and office space.”

Not only does the administrator’s contract not appear to allow for the changes she made to her pay without board approval, the most recent changes to the county’s Administrative Procedures Manual, dated Oct. 4, 2012, are signed by Richardson, which implies she was aware of the county’s rules.

The manual says the maximum hours of time management an employee can “sell back” for cash compensation is 80. Thus far the documents and emails related to the pay controversy EW has accessed have concentrated on deferred compensation and “time management” leave-with-pay hours. The AFSCME union and EW separately have made a public records request for emails and documents related to Richardson’s pay, gross wages, deferred compensation, PERS, time management or bonuses.

Jim Steiner of AFSCME says the union inquired into the compensation and related issues for Dingle as well as Richardson because they are related to collective bargaining for union employees. “They say there’s no money, so how is someone personally enriching themselves?” he asks.

The county has been underfunded for years, and during the time Richardson was allegedly making changes to the money she was taking home and asking for a 15 percent raise, the county was asking voters to pass a jail levy and making cuts to social programs. All rules, policies and procedures should be applied equitably, Steiner says, pointing out that union members have made personal sacrifices in offering “to cut certain wages and benefits because it best serves the county as a whole, and our members are taxpayers.”

The identity of the whistleblowing county employee who alerted the union to the pay issue has not been publicly disclosed. The employee was so worried, or the atmosphere at county offices is so strained, that more than half of the Lane County Commission’s statement to the media on the Richardson issue was devoted to explaining that “we will protect the employee’s rights to bring matters of concern to our attention without any retribution.”

The investigation is expected to wrap up in the near future, but EW has not been given a release date for its results.

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