Clatsop County Commissioner Lianne Thompson “crossed the boundary of acceptable decorum” when she allegedly placed her hands on a county employee and spoke in a loud and frustrated tone about County Manager Cameron Moore after a Red Cross meeting at Fort Clatsop in June, an internal investigation has found.
The county employee, who has not been publicly identified, did not feel threatened or intimidated but thought Thompson’s behavior was “bizarre.”
The county Board of Commissioners will discuss the findings of the internal investigation at an executive session later this month. If commissioners choose to take any disciplinary action against Thompson, the board would make an announcement during a public meeting.
The incident exposes tension between Commissioner Thompson, some of her fellow commissioners, and County Manager Moore that has bubbled under the surface for several months.
Commissioner Scott Lee, the board’s chairman, learned of the incident soon after it happened, though he did not disclose how. Lee then called an executive session in late July with other board members and Portland-based labor attorney Heather Martin. At the private session, the board decided to pursue an investigation and hire Jill Goldsmith of Workplace Solutions Northwest, a Portland mediation service, to conduct the probe.
Goldsmith interviewed the county employee who had allegedly been touched by Thompson, a witness to the incident, and a county employee who has a personal relationship with Thompson and is familiar with the commissioner’s demeanor and concerns about the county manager. Thompson declined to be interviewed but submitted her account through an attorney.
The results of the internal investigation were revealed to commissioners during an executive session Wednesday night.
“Several staff have raised issues about county government with me,” Thompson said in an email to The Daily Astorian. “They said they feared retaliation if they went public. I now understand their fears of retaliation.”
But Lee insists the internal investigation was a human-resources matter meant to ensure that county staff are protected from commissioners, who supervise the county manager and staff.
“It’s outrageous that she would accuse me of making this issue politically motivated,” Lee said. “I have been following the advice of county counsel.”
The internal investigation found that Thompson was acting in her role as commissioner during the June 27 incident after a Red Cross meeting at Fort Clatsop in Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.
After the Red Cross meeting, Thompson approached the county employee and expressed frustration with Moore. She also allegedly said that she “was the only commissioner on the board who worked.”
Thompson, according to the report, at one point became agitated about Moore, stepped toward the county employee and asked, “Do you know what he did?” As the county employee reflexively placed her hands up, Thompson allegedly placed her hands on the employee’s hands or, according to the witness, upper arms near the shoulders. The county employee then took two to three steps back as Thompson vociferously repeated her question.
After untangling herself, the county employee asked Thompson what she was talking about. Thompson then allegedly expressed her belief that Moore had intentionally scheduled a meeting in May so that she would not be able to attend. The county employee described Thompson as upset and agitated during the conversation.
In the account Thompson provided through an attorney, the commissioner said she has no memory of physically pushing anyone backward. “She is the first to admit she is sometimes loud — a character trait she attributes to her passion for the people of Clatsop County, to her blue-collar roots, and to her hearing loss. She is outwardly demonstrative. She sometimes talks with her hands or touches people during conversations (for example, she may place a supportive hand on someone’s shoulder or she might touch someone’s arm while making a point).”
According to board rules, commissioners must commit themselves to “ethical, businesslike, and lawful conduct, including proper use of authority and appropriate decorum when acting as board members.” The internal investigation concluded Thompson violated this policy.
Lee pointed to an incident in 2014 when he castigated former County Commissioner Dirk Rohne, now a Port of Astoria commissioner. Rohne allegedly complained about staff and former County Manager Scott Somers to Portland-based labor attorney Akin Blitz.
“This is not the first time I’ve called out a commissioner for failing to understand how to do his or her job, in my opinion, and getting out of their lane with staff,” Lee said. “It’s a very big problem and it’s been something that I take seriously.”
David Kramer, Thompson’s Salem-based attorney, questioned whether the board has the authority to investigate an independently elected official since that power is not specifically outlined in the county charter. He said the board’s rules apply to conduct at board meetings, “but nothing you allege arguably relates to a board ‘meeting.’”
Kramer called the internal investigation “likely politically motivated, and it undercuts the political independence of elected public officials.”