Primary Ballot Review: Washington County Commission Chair

Incumbent Washington County Board of Commissioners Chair Kathryn Harrington, who is running for reelection to the at-large position, claims she was elected in 2018 “with a focus on increasing government transparency and accountability, advancing equity and diversity, addressing affordable housing and homelessness.” 

She stated on her 2018 campaign website that “We need to be more focused on serving community members throughout Washington County and making sure we are not leaving people behind.” But since she took office, the total number of houseless individuals in the county, which had gone down the year before, has increased by almost 40 percent. 

Harrington declined to answer questions regarding the plight of houseless individuals in the county and the ongoing pandemic. But, during her State of the County address on April 12, Harrington discussed how the county is using federal American Rescue Plan and Metro supportive housing services funds to expand the availability of affordable housing and the delivery of wrap-around social services to help people with mental health, addiction, and disability issues stay housed, as well as increasing the number of shelter beds available.

Most of Harrington’s comments about the pandemic were related to economic recovery. She mentioned the county’s high vaccination rate, despite the reality that vaccines only prevent vaccinated individuals from becoming seriously ill in most, but not all, cases. 

Harrington also has been slow to keep her promise to advance equity and diversity. After a three-year process which started with the approval of an “equity charter,” the county commissioners, voted in April 2022 to establish an advisory council on racial equity (ACRE). All of the Washington County commissioners except one are white. During the State of the County, she applauded the process of creating a racial equity advisory council, despite the snail’s pace.

In addition, Harrington has hardly been a proponent of government transparency and accountability. Her opponent entered the race after local elected officials expressed concerns with the county’s lack of transparency under Harrington. One of the accusations regarding Harrington’s violations of county human resources policies involved her displeasure “about County staff appearing in front of city councils and interacting with the cities without” her knowledge.

The county paid Michael V. Tom of Northwest Workplace Investigations $25,000 to scrutinize this and other allegations by current and former employees about Harrington’s “unprofessional” conduct while in office. Citing attorney-client privilege, the county originally suppressed Tom’s full report, which he based on interviews with 20 county employees and one non-employee. “[Washington] county staff retained a second independent attorney, at an additional cost of $1,440, to draft a condensation of the significant facts from the report that are not otherwise exempt from disclosure”, according to Philip Bransford, county communications officer.

Witnesses told the investigator that Harrington “indicates disinterest, becomes ‘short,’ or makes statements expressing frustrations with presenters and/or moves onto other agenda items; is sometimes ‘thrown off’ or flustered if a meeting does not go as planned by the agenda; and has been observed using expressive faces, rolling her eyes, heavy sighing, putting her hand on her head or shutting down with crossed arms and sitting back when unhappy in meetings.”

Harrington responded that “she tries to ‘catch’ herself from using the alleged body language.” During her State of the County presentation, Harrington’s delivery was almost wooden. She smiled frequently, but not always appropriately, and there was often a disconnect between her words and her body language. 

The condensed report states that Harrington’s “behavior can be hostile and abusive and beyond unprofessional; she can be condescending and speaks down and cuts off people in public settings … she is not a team player or a people person; her communication style is abrupt, blunt and direct; she uses intimidating and a demeaning tone” but also “that it was difficult to determine whether Chair Harrington’s communication and conduct rose to disrespectful or unprofessional behaviors”. One witness said they had “not seen Chair Harrington engage in any unfair, undignified and/or disrespectful, humiliating, or shaming behaviors”, stating “she is not self-aware and has an unkind delivery style; she cannot see herself; she is not reflective and lacks emotional intelligence”.

“Witnesses reported confronting Chair Harrington about her behavior”, the investigator reported, and “the Chair did not engage in the behavior again; that Chair Harrington’s conduct has improved … that in the past 3-4 months, Chair Harrington became more supportive and ‘over-the-top intentional’ to show kindness towards others”. In the condensed report, one witness is quoted saying “that Chair Harrington is brilliant, has great ideas and is good for the County”.

The two male members of the Board of Commissioners insisted to media that they want the full report released. Commissioner Roy Rogers, who is not up for reelection this year, has stated that since taxpayer money paid for the report, it should be available to the public. Commissioner Jerry Willey, who is running for reelection unopposed after two candidates withdrew, claims the investigator concluded Harrington violated county policies and has been quoted as saying, “We can’t cover up violations of our human resources policies under the secrecy of attorney-client privilege.”

Willey told KOIN 6, “She engaged in workplace harassment that was abusive, disruptive, unprofessional, and created a work environment that was not civil or respectful of county employees.” So the investigator is recommending, Willey said, allegedly reading from the report, “emotional intelligence training, benefit from counseling and training regarding her substantiated disrespectful conduct.”

Rogers told KOIN, “In the full report, you’ll see, they resign. There are people leaving. It’s in there and that’s a shame.”

By hiring an attorney to conduct the investigation, the board created the attorney-client privilege it used to prevent the full report’s release. Pamplin Media Group appealed the county’s refusal to release the full report and on April 11 Deputy District Attorney David Pitcher determined “The condensed report fails to adequately describe significant facts contained within the full report.” On April 13, Pamplin’s Troy Shinn reported that Pitcher said, “the condensed report omits significant observations and statements made by witnesses about the behavior of Chair Harrington and its impact on county employees.”

Pitcher’s decision didn’t find the county’s claim of attorney-client privilege persuasive: “For the internal advisory exemption to apply, the county must make a strong showing that its interest in frank internal communications clearly outweighs the public interest. We do not believe the county has met its burden to sustain this exemption. The voters and citizens of Washington County have a significant interest in learning of potential misconduct or policy violations by a public official, particularly one who is up for election next month.”

Pitcher’s boss, Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, is also on the May ballot. Harrington has endorsed Barton’s opponent, public defender Brian Decker.

The county had the option of appealing the DA’s decision in court After an executive session on Tuesday, April 12, the Board released the full report with recommended redactions to protect identities of employees the investigator interviewed.

One of the footnotes in the redacted document states: “Many witnesses reported concern for potential repercussions and/or retaliation from Chair Harrington. To aid in protecting their identities, each is referred to as ‘a witness’ or ‘reporting party.'”

That document, about twice as long (with black blocks marking redacted information) as the condensed report, also quotes the employee who reported overhearing Harrington’s use of profanity stating “Harrington is ‘unpredictably volatile’ and you ‘never know which Kathryn you are going to get.’ The employee described the Chair as ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ and reported that the Chair can be straight-forward and happy one moment and then in the next moment will raise her voice and appear unhappy.” This “employee reported that the Chair is the reason the employee is leaving their employment with the County,” according to the redacted report. A former employee reported “they left County employment because of the incident and ongoing concerns with” Harrington. The word “volatile” and references to “Jekyll and Hyde” never appear in the condensed report. 

In the full, redacted report the witness who said Harrington is “brilliant” also reported that Harrington “doesn’t have to destroy careers,” that “people are leaving or don’t want to work with her,” and “her behavior needs to change.”

The employee who said it was difficult to determine if Harrington’s conduct “rose to disrespectful or unprofessional behavior” also told the investigator that “other Commissioners,” in addition to Harrington, use “an abrupt, blunt and direct communication style,” according in the full report.

According to Bransford, the county response to the report included clarification by the county administrator of roles and responsibilities of staff who work with the commissioners. Although the work of the employees interviewed by the investigator support the commissioners, they report to the county administrator.  In addition, the county administrator has commissioned a workplace assessment to set a baseline for future evaluation of working conditions in the County Administrative Office. Harrington’s use of profanity in talking about staff, another of the complaints in the condensed report, was addressed by soundproofing the “thin” walls of her office. This was done as part of “soundproofing improvements to the existing walls and HVAC ducts” for the entire Board of County Commissioners/County Administrative Office suite (work space for about 20 people in both enclosed offices and cubicles) at a total cost of $11,452, according to Bransford.

When Harrington was elected to the Board, she and District 2 Commissioner Pam Treece, replaced two members of what was then an all male and rural/conservative board. With Nafisa Fai’s election in 2020, the Board shifted to majority female and majority liberal/progressive.

Although the commissioners standing up for full disclosure are men, some of the people who have identified themselves as targets of her harassment have been women, including Harrington’s former Chief Of Staff Elizabeth Mazzara Myers who received a settlement of more than $80,000 for lost wages and benefits.

It’s also been pointed out that the majority of those who have switched their endorsements from Harrington to her opponent, including Forest Grove Mayor Peter Truax, Sherwood Mayor Keith Mays, Tualatin Mayor Frank Bubenik, Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, former State Senator Mark Hass, and Former Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten, also are men. But some female elected officials who endorsed Harrington in 2018 have switched their recommendations for 2022 including State Senator Janeen Sollman (District 15), North Plains Mayor Teri Lenahan, Banks Mayor Stephanie Jones, Hillsboro School District Board Members Lisa Allen and Erika Lopez. Harrington’s 2022 list of endorsements is shorter than in 2018. However, she is still endorsed by U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici, former Governor Barbara Roberts, Treece, Fai, Beaverton Mayor Lacey Beaty, King City Mayor Jaimie Fender, Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, State Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, State Senator Kate Lieber, and others.

Another notable difference in Harrington’s 2022 campaign materials is apparently in reaction to her current opponent’s military service. In 2018, when she ran against someone accused of lying about whether and when he served in the U.S. Navy, Harrington’s website made no mention of the armed forces. Now, the opening sentence of her bio on the site states she grew up in a military household.

Harrington’s opponent in the upcoming election is Hillsboro City Councilor Beach Pace. Pace served in the U.S. Army for seven years, including as Bomb Squad Executive Officer and Commander, and led her unit in security operations for the United States president, vice president, secretary of state, and other high-ranking officials. She earned a Bachelor of Science from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Master of Public Administration from Northern Michigan University. Her website emphasizes her skills in collaboration, understanding, and listening to all points of view.

Pace has stated she had no intention of running for the county commission until approached, starting in August, by several people who expressed concerns regarding access to information about and involvement in county decisions.

In addition to her experience on the Hillsboro City Council, which she represents on the League of Oregon Cities board of directors and Washington County Coordinating Committee, Pace has held leadership positions with non-profit organizations including Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Columbia Northwest, Vice President and Executive Director of City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley, Vice President of Roadtrip Nation, and board member of the Westside Queer Resource Center. She also has nine years private sector experience as a team leader.

Pace is the only commission candidate acknowledging on her website that “we are not yet out of the pandemic” and states she will “collaborate with the local and State governments to ensure resources are available to meet the needs of our communities.”  

Unfortunately, federal and state governments have abandoned most efforts to control the pandemic — which is still killing 1,000 to 2,500 people every single day in the U.S. — by eliminating mask mandates, no longer paying for testing and vaccinations for the uninsured and manipulating data to make numbers look better. Washington County, where the virus made its first Oregon appearance in 2020, still offers free vaccinations. However, in addition to not preventing COVID-19’s spread, none of the vaccines appear to reduce the risk of long-term, possibly permanent disability from Long COVID.

When asked how she would work to contain the pandemic in the face of a government attitude which ignores the harm caused to people who are disabled, elderly, immunocompromised, medically unable to get vaccinated, poor, living in congregate situations, etc. (as well as the repercussions of Long COVID), Pace responded with hopium misinformation. “The COVID-19 virus is becoming endemic, meaning it has more predictable behavior. This also aligns with people learning to live with the virus, much like influenza, and regulatory restrictions lifting. However, new variants are preventing us from moving entirely into this endemic phase.” 

In stating “I believe local governments now have the opportunity to make recommendations based on case counts on a community-by-community basis”, Pace ignores the fact that we don’t have accurate case counts, because case counts are no longer being reported. 

Despite high vaccination rates compared to the rest of the state, Washington County is still at high risk, as are all counties in the metro area, even according to the U.S. COVID Risk & Vaccine Tracker. But even that data is misleading as it uses manipulated CDC metrics. In reality, the only COVID measurement that hasn’t been politically compromised is wastewater data and those numbers are frankly terrifying.

Table of changes in COVID detected in wastewater samples in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties based on CDC data from April 11, 2022. Column headers include sewershed ID, county, population served, percent change in the last 15 days, averages by county, and metro average. The metro average is an increase of over 178 million percent.
Changes in COVID detected in wastewater samples in Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington Counties

The change in the percentage of the COVID virus found in Washington County wastewater has increased an average of more than 536 million percent just for the beginning April. The average increase for the entire metro area (Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties) was more than 178 million percent across all reporting wastewater treatment facilities. For the 15 days ending April 21, Washington County was up another 532 percent.

Currently, the Washington County website refers to the politically compromised Center for Disease Control’s deadly “guidelines” which, for example, advise those who test positive to isolate for five days even though most people remain contagious for seven to 10 days. The website also claims people “do not need to stay home (quarantine) unless” they have symptoms, ignoring asymptomatic transmission. Pace said “I will partner with Washington County’s Public Health Officer to ensure accurate information and appropriate recommendations are made available in a timely manner.” Hopefully, if she is elected, she’ll “partner” with epidemiologists and virologists who are not politically compromised to do so.

Pace’s website is the only one of the four commission candidates that doesn’t mention unhoused individuals in the county. When asked how she would address that issue, Pace decried the “housing first” method which emphasizes putting unhoused people in permanent housing rather than temporary shelters, although she does agree with Harrington that “wrap-around services are key to long-term solutions for housing insecure and homeless neighbors”. She specifically lists both Sheriff’s Deputies and operators of the referral-only Bybee Lakes Hope Center, formerly the Wapato Correctional Facility, which requires frequent drug and alcohol screenings, mandatory community service hours, etc., as two “resources” she has consulted to develop “a model of services that provides dignity and respect to our neighbors facing housing insecurity or homelessness.” (In contrast, Harrington mentions the Laurelwood Center, a low-barrier shelter for women and couples that does not require sobriety or abstinence, as a resource she investigated.)

In addition to numerous elected officials and community leaders, Pace is also endorsed by the Portland Business Alliance, Washington County Chamber PAC, Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce, Tigard Area Chamber of Commerce, and Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. From those, her responses to my questions, and her fond memories of her military service, I would peg her significantly to the right of Harrington. 

By F.I. Goldhaber

F.I. Goldhaber's words capture people, places, and politics with a photographer's eye and a poet's soul. As a reporter, editor, business writer, and marketing communications consultant, they produced news stories, feature articles, editorial columns, and reviews for newspapers, corporations, governments, and non-profits in five states. Now paper, electronic, and audio magazines, books, newspapers, calendars, broadsides, and street signs display their poetry, fiction, and essays. Left Fork press will publish What Color is Your Privilege? — a collection of political statements in poetic form — this September.