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Island County commissioner candidate was discipline problem as county worker

Angie Homola, the candidate for Island County commissioner who has centered her campaign on improving the way the county planning department does business, was a problem employee while she was previously employed by the planning department.

According to Homola’s employee file — reviewed by the Record after it was released under a public records request — the candidate for the District 2 commissioner’s position was repeatedly disciplined for work problems during her employment as a plans examiner. Homola was reprimanded, warned and counseled over performance and behavior issues, documents show, and her supervisors said she repeatedly failed to understand she needed to improve her work performance and her attitude.

Since announcing earlier this year she would seek to unseat longtime incumbent Commissioner Mac McDowell for the District 2 position on the board of county commissioners, Homola has frequently touted her experience as an employee in the planning department during her campaign.

She declined, however, to answer specific questions about her work history with Island County asked by the Record, despite repeated requests.

In a statement she read to a reporter Thursday, Homola said her problems began after she helped prepare new standards for the Historic Advisory Committee, but the code-revision effort wasn’t really wanted.

“It became apparent that upper management considered historic preservation a hindrance to development,” Homola said.

“Not long after this code adoption process began, out of the blue I received a letter of reprimand. The laundry list of grievance items was unfounded,” she said. “An aggressive constructive discharge effort was undertaken to create substantiating evidence.”

Homola said Commissioner Phil Bakke — former director of the county’s planning department — violated her union contract, and her employers created a paper trail to make it look like she couldn’t do her job. Different standards applied on different days.

“I never knew from day one to day two what I was supposed to do,” she said.

Bakke, who was leading the planning department when Homola worked there from June 2001 through March 2004 as a plans examiner/building inspector trainee, said it wasn’t politics that stymied adoption of Homola’s revisions.

“Her work product was substandard, and we ultimately assigned a senior land-use planner to do the project,” Bakke said.

Homola’s work problems didn’t stem from her bosses being out to get her, Bakke said.

“If you look through that file, it all comes down to performance,” he said. “Results were being required and she couldn’t perform.”

Trouble at work

Documents in Homola’s personnel file paint a picture of a county employee who had trouble understanding what her job required, and a person who became combative and defensive when asked to improve her performance.

In late 2003, for example, after she had been repeatedly counseled about her job performance and a warning letter had been put in her file, she asked during a Dec. 18 disciplinary meeting to have the warning letter removed from her file.

In a confidential memo recounting the meeting, Bakke said the request showed Homola was still not understanding that her work performance needed to improve.

“I am somewhat concerned that you are missing the seriousness of these issues,” Bakke wrote. “The fact that you would ask that the warning letter be removed after an hour-long disciplinary meeting in which we discussed, yet again, many of the same issues raised in the Dec. 10, 2003 warning letter seems to indicate you have not accepted the guidance we are trying to provide.”

Bakke also noted that since a counseling meeting held the month before, “your work performance and attitude has suffered considerably.”

Bakke set out a one-page list of seven problem areas that needed work, noting: “You are to cease all insubordinate behavior and accept direction from your supervisors.”

By her own admission, Homola acknowledged she was frequently written up by her direct supervisor, Robert McCaughan, over performance issues. She said they were minor issues that were blown out of proportion.

“I was actually written up for giving someone an outdated handout,” she said.

Homola was a 32-hour-a-week plans examiner, someone who reviews building plans to make sure they fit with the county code.

“It’s a fairly simple, repetitive process,” Bakke said in a later interview, a review that involves, essentially, checking submittals for compliance with health- and safety-related building requirements.

“It’s a very regimented process. Are the beams substantial enough to support the floors; are there smoke detectors,” he said.

Her employee file, however, details a wide range of problems associated with her job performance as a plans examiner.

According to records in Homola’s personnel file, Homola — a licensed architect at the time - was repeatedly accused of trying to design people’s projects for them instead of just looking at their plans to see if they fit with county code. Supervisors said customers complained, a claim Homola disputes.

Records show she was criticized for missing essential details on plans, such as the time she signed off on a house that didn’t have a kitchen in it. She was accused of not charging people the proper amount for permits; apology letters had to be sent out when the county sought to have developers pay the proper amount.

She had trouble multi-tasking, and was criticized for being unable to retain instructions because she asked the same questions time and again. She had to be trained, retrained and trained again on the same things, but argued over simple instructions from her supervisors.

Documents in her work file also state she tried to create animosity between her supervisors, and would take positions in public meetings that ran counter to the department’s positions.

When unhappy customers complained, she told them to go talk to county commissioners.

And when confronted time and again about her substandard work, Homola asked customers who came into the planning department to write letters of support for her. Other acquaintances wrote complimentary letters, as well, and Homola’s father made a direct, written appeal to Commissioner McDowell, asking him for his help.

In an interview this week, Bakke said a major problem was that Homola was just very, very slow at doing her job. She was often missing, and her supervisor didn’t know where she could be found.

“She wasn’t keeping pace with her colleagues in doing plan review,” Bakke said.

“And you’ve got to remember, five years ago it was a lot different,” Bakke said. “Five years ago, the place was hopping. There was a lot of permits running through.”

Delays in plan review were costing people money, Bakke added. And Homola wasn’t performing at the same level as her coworkers, despite extensive help. It was “train and train and train,” Bakke recalled. There were counseling sessions, too, Bakke said, but nothing seemed to work.

“Bob [McCaughan] did everything imaginable. Angie could never get her numbers up,” he said.

Bakke said her trouble at work didn’t happen overnight.

“It took a lot of time to get to where we were,” he said.

He added that Homola was “very closed to the idea” that she had to change.

“She felt singled out ... that we were keeping track.

“But that’s what managers do, and have always done, Bakke said.

“Even today we keep track of how many plans an employee does; it was nothing new. That’s what a manager does; you monitor the performance of the people who work for you.”

“If you have someone who is not performing, it’s not fair to the organization to let them skate by. My job was to work with Bob and see that the correct actions were taken. And I believe they were,” he said.

McCaughan could not be reached for comment; he was later fired from his post when he disagreed with the building department’s shift to provide faster service on over-the-counter permits, Bakke said.

Lies, dishonesty

Homola said in her exit interview that she was subject to a hostile work environment and repeated harassment. One of the reasons she left were due to the “lies and dishonesty,” she wrote on her exit form, and accused Bakke and McCaughan of “abusive and controlling behavior.” Homola also said there were no policies, training or performance criteria to guide her.

When asked by a reporter to elaborate on the claims, Homola declined and again said her problems came from trying to revise the historic reserve guidelines that she said her supervisors didn’t really want.

“It became evident that the job I was instructed to do, to carry out getting the historic reserve guidelines adopted in the county code, was not really desired,” she said. “The guidelines were viewed as a hinderance to development.”

“What ensued were months of hostile, discriminatory and unethical behavior,” Homola said. “The way in which I was treated during these efforts to create a ‘record of incompetency’ was abusive and appalling.”

Homola also said she complained to McDowell, and said he noted “wrongful behavior” but did nothing.

McDowell disputes that account.

McDowell said he did speak with Homola, just a few days before her last day with the county.

“My impression at the time was of a very distraught young lady stating her case,” he said.

“I never said there was any wrongful behavior,” McDowell said, adding that he talked with her department head, and the county’s personnel director about her allegations.

“Based on what she said, they said, I saw no wrongdoing or nothing that shouldn’t have been happening.

“If I thought there was wrongful behavior I would have done something,” McDowell said.

Homola left her position with the county in March 2004; her union negotiated a layoff at her request.

“The work environment and the lack of ethics became unacceptable,” she said.

Hard feelings

Homola would not discuss the specifics of the charges she made in her statement, or the documents in her personnel file, and expressed repeated concern that any story about her work with the county would be biased.

Instead, she offered to write the story of what happened during her employment with Island County. She also suggested that a public forum could be held on the topic, with McDowell and Bakke included.

She declined to answer specific questions on her work history, or even listen to them, when given repeated opportunities in recent weeks.

“I don’t see the point,” Homola said Thursday.

Still, she stands by her view that she was treated unfairly, and that Bakke and McCaughan were unethical and dishonest as supervisors. She said the thought of Bakke being reelected as commissioner was “scary.”

“Will I ever respect that person? Never,” she said.

Even so, she said she would maintain a professional demeanor if she is voted into the commissioner’s position, and if Bakke is, too.

“I put that behind me,” she said of her time in the planning department. “I’m going to go forward. This is my campaign. I want to serve the citizens of this community.”

“This stuff that’s in the file has nothing to do with my ability to serve,” Homola added. “It’s important to understand my campaign is not a vendetta of what happened. I’m turning on my skills, my qualities and what I have to offer the county. It’s not about a vendetta.”

Bakke said he too could work with Homola as a commissioner, if they both get elected.

“We’re professionals here,” he said.

But can Homola handle the complexities posed by the job of county commissioner, which involve considering a multitude of details, competing issues, multiple views and demands across a wide range of constituents? Bakke said it was a tougher job than that of a plans examiner, but declined to give a yes or no answer.

“Five years have gone by. Maybe she’s changed,” he said.

Brian Kelly can be reached at 221-5300 or bkelly@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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