The manager of the Clatsop County Fair abruptly left his post as the Fair Board was preparing to fire him after concerns about his ability to manage operations and maintain trust.
The Fair Board placed John Lewis on administrative leave in late May and was set to terminate his employment before a separation agreement was reached in early June. Lewis, who had served as the fairgrounds operations manager for four years, agreed to a two-month severance package.
His departure touched off a scramble two months before the county fair in August. The Fair Board moved quickly to hire Jason Brim, a former manager of Brim’s Farm & Garden in Astoria, as interim manager.
After the Fair Board declined to provide any explanation about why Lewis left, The Astorian sought to obtain information from the county through the state’s public records law and from other sources.
The documents, which include copies of the separation agreement, letters, emails and text messages, showed tension between Lewis and some on the Fair Board over the past year as complaints surfaced about his management and conduct.
According to a letter Michael Autio, an attorney who serves as the chairman of the Fair Board, addressed to Lewis in late May, Lewis was alleged to have “violated the confidentiality of Fair Board executive session meetings, used county funds for private purposes, disrespected individual Fair Board members and engaged in actions that may be construed as sexual harassment.”
Lewis could not be reached for comment.
‘Thrust into this role’
Last summer, documents show, Lewis earned high marks from the Fair Board on a job performance review.
But from late summer to early fall, Lewis became the subject of an investigation that included claims of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. The complaints against Lewis included alleged sexually suggestive comments and jokes and not maintaining professional boundaries with his co-workers.
The investigation, conducted by an Ashland-based attorney on behalf of the county’s Human Resources Department, did not substantiate the complaints, documents show. In emails to Autio, Lewis denied wrongdoing but said he felt guilty the ordeal happened on his watch.
After the investigation ended, Lewis underwent leadership training. Sheriff Matt Phillips served as a mentor for him.
Phillips told Autio in an email: “It is pretty clear to me he was thrust into this role without real management training and without someone to guide him. I believe John is a high capacity individual who has been able to work hard to survive and in many ways excel.”
When the allegations against Lewis arose in May, Autio cited the investigation from last year as a reason to expect that Lewis would not pursue litigation: “Frankly, given the record of discipline last October and the nature of the current allegations, John bringing suit against the Fair Board is not a huge concern or risk,” Autio wrote in an email to county staff.
Autio declined to provide specifics on the new allegations when asked by The Astorian. He said Lewis voluntarily resigned before an investigation could be conducted.
A former fair employee told The Astorian via email that Lewis was a great boss and expressed a belief that Lewis was compelled to leave for reasons other than those stated in the letter from the Fair Board.
Emails indicate that Lewis’ exit followed months of tension between him and certain Fair Board members, as well as within the Fair Board.
When asked if there was anything he wanted the public to know about Lewis’ departure, Autio pointed to Lewis’ record of service, including his time as the fairground’s maintenance supervisor before he became manager.
Lewis took on management of the fairgrounds after Kathi Mattinen was placed on administrative leave and departed in 2018.
“During his tenure Mr. Lewis was instrumental in improving the fairgrounds facilities and helping to bring in new events,” Autio said in an email. “We are appreciative of his service and wish Mr. Lewis well.”
‘A little bit unwieldy’
Last October, as the investigation into Lewis’ conduct concluded, Autio told the county that the Fair Board still wished to maintain supervisory authority over fair personnel.
“The fair manager and the two other positions are Fair Board employees, not county employees … and it is the Fair Board personnel policy that is being implemented,” Autio said in an email to county staff and fellow board members.
The status of fair employees may soon change.
The Fair Board has opened a discussion with the county Board of Commissioners about updating the memorandum of understanding between the two boards.
Autio told The Astorian that the idea to revise the agreement did not emerge from the experience with Lewis or from other recent personnel issues. The agreement has not been updated since 2010, and the need to do so has long been discussed, he said.
Since the Fair Board is recruiting a permanent fair manager and administrative coordinator, “it is a good time to explore the transition,” Autio said.
He pointed out that the county already handles most employee-related services, such as contracting and payroll, with money that comes out of the fair budget. The county’s Human Resources Department also handles advertising and onboarding when the Fair Board hires new employees, Autio said. The fair keeps three to four permanent employees, plus a handful of temporary employees during the summer.
The Fair Board is made up of five members appointed by county commissioners to three-year terms.
“It’s becoming a little bit unwieldy for us to manage this personnel just as a volunteer group, and it may make more sense to have them just be county employees” rather than Fair Board employees, Autio said at a recent joint work session between the Fair Board and county commissioners.
Jack Ficken, vice president and relationship manager at Lewis & Clark Bank who serves on the Fair Board, told county commissioners at the work session that his most immediate concern — which Autio echoed — was human resources.
“Honestly, I’m not an HR specialist, and I don’t want to be an HR specialist. That’s way out of my land,” Ficken said. “And so, I’m — me, personally — I’m looking for help with HR.”