One of the finalists for CEO of Green Valley Recreation was on the losing end of a lawsuit that cost his Oregon county about $700,000 in 2015.
A retired district attorney who testified during the three-day trial over the dismissal of an employee, called Scott Somers’ actions leading to the lawsuit “callously cruel and also stupid.”
Somers served as county manager of Clatsop County, Oregon, from 2012 to 2015, and was named as one of three finalists for the GVR position. He currently is city manager of College Park, Maryland.
The three finalists were in Green Valley the past few days touring facilities and meeting with board and committee members. GVR board President Don Weaver said Friday that they were made aware of the lawsuit by the search firm and did not believe it to be an issue.
On Saturday, Weaver said GVR officials “met with legal counsel and are going to have a board meeting” in the next week open to all members.
“We will discuss where we are, what’s happened and where we’re going,” he said. “It will be very transparent.”
Weaver declined to say whether the board will make a decision on a candidate before the meeting.
The all-member meeting via Zoom is a reversal from what had been a closed process in the search for a new CEO.
GVR has not disclosed the names of the finalists, saying that was a condition of the firm it hired to lead the search. The Green Valley News obtained the names. In addition to Somers, the finalists are Chad Bird, city manager in Decorah, Iowa, and Jeffrey Huskey, assistant dean of wellness/dean of recreation at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Problems in Oregon
According to stories published by The Astorian newspaper in Astoria, Oregon, Clatsop County Clerk Maeve Kennedy Grimes was fired by Somers after two errors were discovered on the November 2014 general election ballot.
Kennedy Grimes contacted the Secretary of State’s office after the errors came to light and was directed by them to proceed with mailing out supplemental ballots, which would cost the county about $14,000. The lawsuit alleged Somers, however, ordered her to consider less expensive options or do nothing because the errors were insignificant.
Somers called Kennedy Grimes insubordinate for pursuing the Secretary of State’s directive to issue corrected ballots without consulting him, but her attorney saw it differently.
“Ms. Grimes felt torn between clear direction she had received from the SOS (Secretary of State’s Office) and what she believed to be Somers’ illegal demand that she ignore that direction,” Andrew Altschul, Kennedy Grimes’ attorney, wrote in the lawsuit.
Kennedy Grimes said during the trial that she was “not terminated for the right reasons. I was made out to be a person who I am not. I was made out to look like someone who didn’t know how to do my job, and that is not true.”
A 12-person jury unanimously agreed that Kennedy Grimes was fired because she disclosed information she reasonably believed was evidence of the county violating the law, mismanagement, wasting funds and abusing authority. The jury also found the county interfered with Kennedy Grimes’ disclosure, according to The Astorian.
Kennedy Grimes was awarded $168,136 in economic damages and $271,610 in noneconomic damages, totaling nearly $440,000. Noneconomic damages apply to her emotional distress and the damage to her professional reputation. The county also was ordered to cover her attorney fees. All costs were paid by the county's insurance company.
Joshua Marquis, who retired as Clatsop County District Attorney in 2018, estimated the total hit to the county at $700,000 when attorney and other costs were included.
Marquis, who worked with Kennedy Grimes for several years and testified in the case, told the Green Valley News that Somers “put on this giant dog-and-pony show” at public meetings to take aim at the county clerk after putting her on paid administrative leave.
“It was really appalling because it was clearly an attempt to publicly humiliate this woman,” Marquis said. “I figured he basically was doing this to teach her a lesson and that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. Then he fired her.”
“It was typical of him,” he said. “This was callously cruel and also stupid... He not only publicly humiliated her but then subjected the county to enormous liability.”
Somers said in an interview Thursday with the Green Valley News that GVR officials are aware of the lawsuit. He said the county’s insurance company wanted to take the case to trial, though he said it would have been more appropriate to settle with Kennedy Grimes.
Somers said the county clerk was terminated because the errors happened, not because she consulted with the Secretary of State. He disagreed with the characterization that he publicly humiliated Kennedy Grimes, saying he did “just the opposite of that” in a newspaper editorial explaining the errors.
By one account, seven leaders in county government left during Somers’ three-year tenure, starting with the finance director — a number some felt was excessive. Somers said some were terminated, others “chose to leave.”
“We made a lot of changes and, unfortunately, there was just a lot of history in that organization that hadn’t been managed the way the commission wanted it to be managed. I was the new guy and I did what I was hired to do and I think I did it in a respectful way,” he said.
As employees left, anonymous letters criticizing Somers’ management style landed on the desks of local reporters and the commissioners.
One of the commissioners, Dirk Rohne, took them seriously and started asking questions. That eventually led to the county paying more than $10,000 for an outside, independent assessment of Somers and the county as a whole.
Somers said he called for and supported the review, which concluded the county was operating effectively under his leadership though it noted tension and confusion among workers that could have been avoided with better communication.
“It said that Scott Somers isn’t perfect but he’s been effective, he’s done a pretty good job,” Somers said.
Fifty-five interviews with current and former employees, elected officials and community stakeholders concluded that Somers was “hard working,” “good at information sharing with the community,” “open, collaborative, supportive, approachable,” and “very direct and decisive.”
It also said he could be “inflexible after he has formed an opinion and sometimes stops listening when he disagrees,” is “too quick to take action/make decisions at times — needs to involve others and think through all the possible conclusions and the alternative courses suggested by others,” and is “too thin-skinned when receiving criticism.”
Rohne, who often found himself standing alone among the commissioners, called Somers “a disaster.”
“Everybody left on his account and it was exceedingly negative,” he said.
Somers said he had a good relationship with “all the commissioners but one,” and that it was “time to go” after the review. He left about six months later.
“It was a challenging place,” Somers said.
Somers served on the Douglas County Industrial Development Board in Oregon with former GVR board president Blaine Nisson, who was then-president of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg. Somers said he didn’t immediately recall Nisson.
He said he does not know former GVR CEO Kent Blumenthal, who also worked in Oregon at the same time.