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County Settles  Political Firing Lawsuit

 

Commissioners in Douglas County, Oregon agreed Wednesday to pay a fired employee of the Clerk’s Office $40,000 after a lawsuit alleged the firing was politically motivated.

 The case arose last year when County Clerk Barbara Nielsen fired Kelly Smith, an eight-year veteran employee of the clerk’s office. Nielson said she fired Smith after a stack of tax documents dealing with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians was found in Smith’s possession.

 

Nielson said she fired Smith because she could no longer trust her. Nielson believed Smith had faxed the documents to someone outside the office. She said Smith had no work-related reason for copying the documents and having them in her possession.

 

Smith denied doing anything wrong. In a tort claim filed against the county in November, Smith said she was matching formats off the documents with codes on a separate fee schedule.

Smith said Nielsen fired her because of her political associations, based upon the activities of her father, former Sheriff Norm Neal. Neal worked to elect Commissioner Marilyn Kittelman and former Commissioner Dan Van Slyke.

 

Neal had also been involved in Van Slyke’s re-election bid. Van Slyke lost to Dan Hern in the Republican primary three days before Smith was fired.

Smith said her relationship with Nielsen soured after she saw Debbie Mendenhall, a Board of Commissioners assistant, deliver a sealed envelope to another employee in the Clerk’s Office. Smith believed the envelope contained campaign speeches from Van Slyke and that the envelope was later given to a Hern aide.


After a closed executive session Wednesday between the commissioners and attorney Nena Cook of Portland, commissioners determined they would settle the case.

Nielson denies having done anything wrong.

 

Nielsen told reporters she had done everything correctly. “I just don’t want to sit here and act like I’m accepting this because I’d lose, because I don’t feel that way”, she said.

 

Commissioner Kittelman said Nielsen’s actions in the matter posed a “tremendous liability” for the county.

July-22-07


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