KENNEWICK -- A former Benton County employee who defied her boss by refusing to remove a political sign from her yard last summer is seeking $750,000 for wrongful termination.
Assessor Barbara Wagner fired deputy cartographer Patty Yahne on Nov. 15, five months after allegedly confronting Yahne about having a campaign sign in her yard for county commission candidate Shon Small.
Yahne, who worked for Wagner for 18 years in the assessor's office, also claims Wagner targeted her home for reassessment weeks later, adding $21,000 to its value for tax purposes.
The county's board of appeals upheld the reassessment at a hearing, but Yahne has an appeal pending before the state Board of Tax Appeals.
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Yahne told the Herald in October that she not only refused to remove the sign from her Prosser residential property as Wagner allegedly ordered, but also placed three more signs for Small, who went on to defeat incumbent commissioner Max Benitz Jr. in the Nov. 2 election.
Wagner, who was running for a sixth term, had publicly endorsed Benitz.
The dispute has festered behind closed doors for months because Yahne prefers to try to negotiate a severance package without having to file a claim or sue the county, said her attorney, Scott Johnson of Kennewick.
Neither Yahne nor Johnson would comment about the firing. Wagner and David Sparks, county administrator, also declined to comment.
But almost 200 pages of documents obtained through a public records request show county officials offered Yahne re-employment one day after the firing. They also show that Wagner offered Yahne her job back, admitting her termination "for acts of misconduct, in violation of the controlling collective bargaining agreement" had been improper.
"It appears that the contractual disciplinary process was not strictly followed," Wagner wrote in a Nov. 16 letter to Yahne.
She added that Yahne could return to work "with no loss of pay or benefits, prejudice or rights, including seniority, etc."
But having her job back didn't appeal to Yahne, who filed a labor grievance through her union alleging that the assessor's office had become a hostile work environment for her in the months following the mid-summer campaign sign confrontation.
That grievance was not resolved before Yahne was fired, Johnson said.
Documents received by the Herald represent paper and electronic communications among Wagner, Yahne, various county officials and attorneys since mid-November relating to the firing.
They did not include 69 pages that were withheld as confidential under attorney-client privilege as allowed by state law.
Wagner did not mention in her Nov. 16 letter what the alleged misconduct by Yahne was, but Yahne said in a previous interview with the Herald that her termination was retribution for having talked to the Herald in October about the campaign sign issue.
Yahne told the Herald in November that she believed Wagner fired her without first consulting with the labor union or the county's human resources manager.
"When I asked why I was being fired, she said it was for having talked to the Herald about the campaign signs. I told her she was the one who went to the Herald, not me," Yahne said in November.
Wagner's comments to the Herald two weeks before the election about the sign dispute triggered the Oct. 21 story about the campaign sign flap.
Wagner said an outside attorney's investigation into Yahne's complaint about the campaign signs and of the assessor's office being a hostile work environment was inconclusive.
Wagner also showed the Herald a copy of the attorney's letter, which stated Yahne might have exaggerated facts about the conditions alleging the hostile work environment.
Yahne said that she wasn't surprised when Wagner fired her in front of co-workers 13 days after the election.
"I figured once she was re-elected, she'd fire me," Yahne said in November.
Johnson advised the county by email Nov. 17 that his client's doctor had recommended she not return to work without a physician's release, and that Yahne would instead accept a "reasonable severance package, a reversal of the latest property assessment ... and an apology from Barbara Wagner."
County attorney Steve Hallstrom replied with a severance offer of six months pay and 18 months of continued health benefits.
Johnson countered that the proposal was unacceptable -- not "even a serious offer" -- and that a similar case in Pierce County in which the prosecutor tried to discredit an employee went to trial where a jury "hammered the county" with a $2 million verdict.
Johnson said Yahne would agree to one-third that amount to settle the wrongful termination complaint.
Johnson said in a Nov. 29 email that Yahne was "discriminated against based on political affiliation (and that) requiring her to support a candidate for political office" violated the county's collective bargaining agreement.
"Barbara Wagner seems to think the law does not apply to her. Between her unlawful actions in raising my client's assessed property value to her unlawful firing of my client, the county has irreparably damaged my client," Johnson wrote in the email to Hallstrom.
Settlement negotiations have stalled, and an arbitration hearing set for April 5 to try to agree on a severance package was postponed until May 5.
Yahne remains unemployed five months after being fired from a job she held for 18 years in the assessor's office.