HILLSBORO, Ore. (KOIN) — John Hutzler was elected the Washington County auditor in 2010. In that time he’s had 7 employees. Five of them, KOIN 6 News learned, accused him of creating a work environment of high stress and micromanagement and reduced some employees to tears.
In both investigations, Washington County ruled his actions did not amount to a hostile work environment. But all 5 employees were transferred out of his supervision.
The job of auditor in Washington County — and many places — is the least high-profile elected position. The auditor evaluates whether county programs are done efficiently and effectively.
Hutzler has previously said, “We are your eyes and ears in county government.”
But within his office, all 3 current employees accuse him of mistreatment in a February Washington County Human Resources report obtained by KOIN 6 News through a public record’s request.
KOIN 6 News also obtained emails. Hutzler wrote to one employee, “I hope you will accept my apologies for how I have expressed my concern…” To another he wrote, “I am dismayed and sincerely sorry that anything I have said or done has brought you close to tears…”
When asked about his current employees asking the county to investigate their treatment, Hutzler said it was a combination of factors.
“None of these employees had been with me long, two of them less than three months when COVID hit and we’d not yet really had the opportunity to get to know one another and gel as a team, before we began working exclusively remotely,” Hutzler said.
Those 3 new employees joined Hutzler’s staff in 2019 and 2020 because his 2 previous employees had also filed complaints against him. They were ultimately transferred to other county agencies in 2019.
Multiple sources told KOIN 6 News those employees accused Hutzler of behavior that is bullying, aggressive, and sometimes feels like a “hostile work environment.”
In one of the emails obtained by KOIN 6 News an employee asked a county administrator in 2018, “What should we do if John does things like he has in the past or if we feel he is retaliating?”
But Washington County officials denied a KOIN 6 News request for a copy of the first investigation, which was done by an outside law firm.
“As I explained,” Hutzler said, “I’m not prepared to discuss the prior report because the county has asserted attorney-client privilege in regard to that report.”
But asked if voters should care that 5 of 7 employees filed complaints against the way he treated them, Hutzler dismissed that view.
“I don’t agree with your characterization that these are complaints against me,” he said. “Employees are entitled to bring concerns to HR and HR seeks to assist employers and employees, managers, and employees in resolving problems that may arise in the workplace.”
He also disagreed with the premise that 5-out-of-7 is a high ratio.
“I don’t know. Do you have statistics?”
In both investigations, Washington County cleared Hutzler.
In the latest report, Washington County officials wrote: “….the Human Resources Division did not find harassment, a hostile work environment, or intentional acts of bullying or intimidation has occurred between Mr. Hutzler and his staff auditors. However, the Auditor must address the concerns brought forth by his staff and create a more positive work environment.”
At a February meeting, county commissioners voted to move Hutzler’s 3 current employees to the supervision of the county attorney. Officially, the county said it moved the employees from Hutzler’s supervision to “preserve the integrity of the auditor’s office.”
Hutzler is running for re-election in May. One of his 3 current employees is challenging him for the job.
A memorandum obtained by KOIN 6 News states: “It is also important that all office employees be able to participate freely in the electoral process without fear of claim of retaliation.”
“I can’t dispute their feelings,” Hutzler said. “All I can tell you is that I had no intention to intimidate anyone. And the findings of the report were that there was no violation of law or county policy. There was no intimidation or harassment involved.”
Documents obtained by KOIN 6 News show Hutzler agreed to the county’s recommendation he work with an outside coach on his management style.
KOIN 6 News also tried to talk with the 5 employees who complained about their treatment. But only one of them, Fiona Howell Earle, agreed to talk.
Howell Earle’s full statement is below:
“My colleagues and I were recruited to audit the performance of Washington County managers by the County Auditor, John Hutzler in late 2019 and January 2020. After a few months, John’s management style and auditing practices led us to seek the help of HR and the County Administrative Office by bringing a formal complaint against John. He is a micro-manager who does not respect the professional skills of the experienced staff he hired. He interfered in the running of audits to the point where he was stepping into the role of the auditor-in-charge. He asked staff to do additional work, sometimes outside the plans for audit fieldwork he had agreed to. His changes to the scope of the audits and repeated editing changes in report layout and individual word-choice delayed the completion of audit report. Then he complained about how long the audit staff took to do audits! He did not want to follow all the steps in the County Audit Office’s policies & procedures, a document that he had agreed to after the Principal Management Auditor Kristine Adams-Wannberg created it to line up with Government Auditing Standards, when she joined the County Auditor Office in 2019. He did not want to consider anyone else’s professional judgement if it led to an opinion that differed from his.
We were not shown the report done by HR into our complaint. HR and the CAO brought in a consultant to work with John and the audit staff to improve our personal interactions. In the past, when previous audit staff filed a complaint about John, the CAO hired a legal firm to investigate. That allowed the County to say the report was protected by attorney-client privilege. I know from speaking with previous staff that they had the same complaints about John’s management style we did: micro-managing, domineering, changing his mind about audit work. The County, under previous County Administrator, found positions for the previous audit staff in other departments.
Although the County Auditor recruited staff with years of auditing experience, he often spoke to us and gave us “instruction” as if we were straight out of school. I’ve spent nearly 4 years in PacifiCorp’s internal audit department, then more than 12 years doing performance audits that complied with the Government Auditing Standards in the City of Portland’s Audit Services Division, as well as managing Portland’s financial audit contract. I’ve been part of a peer review team checking that a local government audit shop in Washington D.C. complied with Government Auditing Standards. It was irritating to be treating as if I did not know my profession. There were many times during the audit the report-writing stage when John’s editing style devolved into a verbal cross-examination as if I was on trial. He told staff what to write in the draft report, like an old-fashioned boss dictating to his secretary, then left them to find the evidence to support his words. It was extremely frustrating.
In fairness, John would remove his edits if staff could not find any supporting evidence, but at times it took staff time to convince him we did not have adequate evidence. This is not the way the Government Auditing Standards say an audit should be done. There should be planning first, then fieldwork to find evidence to meet the audit objective, and then the auditor should draw conclusions and write the audit report based on the evidence found. That’s a more efficient way to do it even if it means a slower start.
All of this has been highly frustrating. I’ve been angry, sad, frustrated. I’ve left virtual meetings with John in tears on a couple of occasions when I realized that the audit work I had done, to the agreed-upon plan, was going to be eliminated from the audit report, or else relegated to a very short reference.
I realize that it is difficult for governments to hold elected officials accountable for any poor behavior. However, I feel that Washington County could have done more sooner to make our worklife far less stressful than if was under John Hutzler’s direct management. My colleagues and I suggested to the CAO and HR in 2020 that we transferred to the direct management of someone with better people-skills. In February 2021, after my colleague Kristine Adams-Wannberg announced she was running against our boss in this year’s election for the County Auditor position, the County transferred the audit staff to the County Counsel’s Office.”