News

Homola asked to have personnel file sealed, destroyed

Democratic candidate Angela Homola pressed to get her personnel record with Island County sealed or destroyed less than a week before she registered as a candidate in the Island County Commissioner District 2 race, public records show.

According to documents released under a public records request, Homola, in a letter to the Island County Human Resources Department five days before she became a candidate, reminded county officials it was time they destroyed her file, but she also asked that the entire file be sealed before it left the county’s off-site storage facility and given to her if it weren’t destroyed.

Homola’s personnel file has been the subject of campaign controversy since a Record report on the candidate’s troubled past in the county planning department. Homola was the subject of frequent criticism by her superiors late in her 34-month career as a plans examiner/building inspector trainee, but the candidate has said she was singled out and harassed because her work with the county’s Historic Advisory Committee ran counter to the “pro-development agenda” of commissioners Phil Bakke and Mac McDowell. Both commissioners are Republicans, and Homola is running against McDowell for the District 2 seat.

The Record story stoked intense reactions; Homola supporters said the discipline problems in her personnel file were only allegations, and said the story was an unethically-timed smear job. On the Monday after its Saturday release, a group of a dozen or so Homola supporters picketed outside the newspaper’s Bayview office, the first protest in memory.

Supporters also launched a letter-writing campaign to the Record and began using the newspaper story to solicit donations for Homola.

Homola’s campaign also published a half-page ad in Whidbey’s main newspapers, the Record and the News-Times, in which the candidate said her campaign was not based on a vendetta, but added, “I am running precisely to correct the shocking county practices, skewed agenda and hostile work environment I experienced as an employee of the planning department under director (now commissioner) Phil Bakke and my opponent in this election, Mac McDowell.”

Though Homola has repeatedly touted her experience in the planning department during her campaign, the details of her work history caught many by surprise when first reported last week. Homola’s personnel file contains multiple disciplinary actions, including letters of warning and reprimand. Her employers said she became argumentative when given instructions, was accused of missing essential details on plans she reviewed and was criticized for being unable to retain instructions because she asked the same questions time and time again. Her bosses called her insubordinate when she refused to meet to talk about ways of improving her performance.

The criticism was based on her job performance as a plans examiner, and not her work with the Historic Advisory Committee.

Early worries

Public records show, however, that Homola was concerned about what was in her personnel file before she first entered the race, and in the days following the public rollout of her campaign.

In late January 2007, Homola asked to review her file. On March 27, 2008, she sent a letter to the county reminding officials it was time for her file to be destroyed, but also requesting that the file be sealed and given to her. She filed as a candidate for commissioner on April 1.

On April 22, Homola wrote Larry Larson, director of the county’s Human Resources Department, the day after she again reviewed her file to claim that her file had been altered and that documents had been removed or added.

“Release of altered records could be libelous to Island County. I request these records not be released until we have legally resolved these issues,” Homola wrote.

She also asked to be notified if anyone reviewed her file.

Larson said nothing was removed from Homola’s file.

“No one has substantially changed her file, either in human resources, or by anyone else in this county,” Larson said.

“I want to emphasize the word substantially,” he said. “She had submitted some information in a binder. That information was taken out of the binder and put into her file; to that extent, it was changed.”

“No pages were removed,” he added.

The request to have the file destroyed was unique, Larson said, though former employees have, at times, asked to be given their personnel files.

“I’ve been in human resources since 1986. People have asked me in various jobs I’ve held, and the answer is always no. The file is not their file; the file is the organization’s file,” he said.

Some county employees also have asked to have certain pages removed from their personnel file, Larson added, but the response is always the same.

“I’ve had people ask to have pages removed and destroyed, and the answer is always no,” he said. “I think this is the only one I’ve ever seen for a complete file. That’s like saying you’ve never worked here.”

Homola has declined repeated requests by the Record to talk in detail about her personnel file.

File expanded

Homola said earlier she negotiated with the human resources department for a layoff through her union in exchange for dropping a grievance complaint against the county. At the time, she said her union warned her to take the layoff before she was fired without just cause.

James Trefry, Homola’s union representative at the time, did not respond to requests for comment to the Record.

Homola said she left because of the “lies and dishonesty” in the department, and accused Bakke and Bob McCaughan, her supervisor, of “abusive and controlling behavior.”

A few days after her departure, she submitted an extensive binder filled with e-mails, notes and other paperwork to support her allegations that she wanted added to her personnel file. She also included nearly 20 letters of support or praise — many from county customers, acquaintances or coworkers — that she asked people to write in the months while she was being disciplined for job-performance issues by her supervisors. Some of the other letters of support dated back to Homola’s college days in the early 1980s.

Trouble at work

A few of the letters written by coworkers agree with Homola’s description of a toxic workplace.

One, written by Ed Jones, said other employees had also been criticized like Homola was for being slow at reviewing plans. Jones blamed McCaughan for the poor work atmosphere.

“Bob harassing people is the root cause of low morale in the office and slows everyone’s production level,” Jones wrote.

McCaughan was later fired when he disagreed with the building department’s shift to provide faster service on over-the-counter permits.

Another supporter was co-worker Steve Nerison, a two-time “employee of the month” who had also been warned about slow productivity.

In a letter Nerison sent to the Record earlier this week, he said training was “trial by fire” for new employees such as Homola.

“[McCaughan] was reluctant to put department policies and procedures in writing and much verbal instruction was subject to change on any given day/week and appeared to be dependent on which constituent or employee was involved. Consequently, it was virtually impossible to know what the rules were on any given day,” Nerison wrote. “On one occasion I was presented with an award for performance and criticized the same day for the same performance.”

“I believe that Angie was under more scrutiny than anyone else in the office and that there was an effort to make her life there uncomfortable enough to cause her to leave,” he wrote.

Nerison did not respond to interview requests made by the Record.

Homola did not endear herself to everyone during her time with the county, however.

Deb Eidsness, a county planning commissioner from District 3, recalled Homola from her time on the planning commission and the agriculture advisory committee.

“She’s been very focused on her own agenda and not willing to cooperate with folks who have differing views,” Eidsness said. “She was very uncooperative; she really didn’t want to work with anyone. I found her very hostile.”

“Working with different folks, you can tell the folks who are willing to work with you, and willing to work something out. And you can also see the ones who are stuck in their rut and they don’t want to cooperate, who don’t want to find a workable situation for all,” she added. “Open-mindedness, that is essential for a commissioner, and I don’t feel Angie has displayed that type of quality.”

Asked about her own political views, Eidsness said she wasn’t partisan.

“I’m all over the board. I am absolutely an independent voter. I have no strong party affiliations at all.”

“I’ve had it out with darn near every commissioner,” Eidsness said, adding that she has been able to continue to work amicably with commissioners even when they have disagreed and not followed the planning commission’s advice.

Eidsness wondered, though, if she would be able to work with Homola if she is elected.

“I’m very doubtful that I would be able to work with her. I don’t feel real confident in my willingness to serve on the planning commission,” she said.

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