close
close

Whatcom County Council appoints a panel to investigate handling of sexual harassment allegations

In the spotlight is a Bellingham Herald series that focuses on the high-profile local issues readers care about most. Story idea? Email [email protected].

Members of the Whatcom County Council have appointed a three-member panel to investigate recent allegations that former Public Works Director Jon Hutchings was allowed to resign rather than be fired for sexual harassment.

In a committee of the whole session Tuesday, council members named Council President Barry Buchanan and council members Todd Donovan and Ben Elenbaas to an investigative panel seeking to learn how the council was kept in the dark about the incident.

Elenbaas promised a sincere and focused investigation.

“I am not interested in political nonsense that would make the matter a “side issue,” Elenbaas said during the meeting.

County Executive Satpal Sidhu assured the council that his office would provide any document the council requests and make employees available for interviews.

‘I am pleased that the municipality has formed this committee. You will have full cooperation from my office,” Sidhu said during the committee meeting.

County Council members voted unanimously last week to initiate an independent investigation into a 2022 sexual harassment settlement involving Hutchings, an incident that came to light in a recent Cascade PBS report.

Also last week, Sidhu apologized for his role in the incident, writing a “letter of introduction” for Hutchings who helped him get a job as public works director in Lynden.

Sidhu rejected a call for his resignation from the leadership of the Whatcom County Democratic Party, promising greater transparency in government and pledging to rebuild trust with the council, the public and county employees.

County Council members also want to investigate whether there is a conflict of interest with their attorney, George Roche, who is a senior deputy prosecutor in the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office. Roche also represents the county’s Human Relations Office, which handled the harassment allegations and the settlement.

“This is an open book, except for the names of (Hutchings’) accusers,” Roche told the council.