Benton assessor employee says boss demanded removal of campaign sign

A Benton County Assessor's Office employee says her boss berated her for having a political campaign sign in her yard this summer and that the office became a hostile work environment for her because of it.

But an investigation into Patti Yahne's complaint found no evidence to back up the allegations, and Assessor Barbara Wagner says the claims are not true.

Yahne, an 18-year-employee of the assessor's office, said she has a grievance pending with the labor union, Local 874 HC of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Yahne said Wagner came to her on the job in June, demanding Yahne remove a campaign sign for Shon Small, a candidate for commissioner against incumbent Commissioner Max Benitz Jr.

Yahne said she thinks someone from the assessor's office had driven by her property in Prosser to see if a Wagner campaign sign was displayed in the yard. Wagner is running for re-election against opponent Bill Spencer.

"She jabbed her finger at me when she told me to take the sign down," Yahne told the Herald on Wednesday. She claimed it was because Small and Spencer are political friends.

Melina Wenner, county director of personnel, hired an attorney from Bellevue to investigate and interview Wagner's employees.

Attorney Ellen Lenhart recently concluded her investigation and sent Wenner a letter saying Yahne might have exaggerated about the office being a hostile work environment, and that she could not find facts to confirm the allegations. The investigation was inconclusive.

Lenhart confirmed in a phone interview with the Herald on Wednesday that her investigation is done, but she refused to say anything about her findings or conclusions. The Herald saw the letter earlier Wednesday but was not provided a copy.

Yahne said she put a campaign sign for Small in her yard in Prosser in early summer.

David Sparks, county administrator, said the county has no rules prohibiting campaign signs in employees' yards.

But Wagner said none of what Yahne alleges is true. "Absolutely not," she said Wednesday.

Part of Yahne's complaint against Wagner includes a concern that her home was reassessed in June, a short time after she complained about being hassled by her boss over the yard sign.

A search of Benton County records shows Joseph and Patricia Yahne's home on six acres in Prosser was reassessed at almost $242,000, which is about $21,000 higher than the previous assessment for the 2008 home.

"I checked 458 properties in my neighborhood and mine was the only one that went up that wasn't a recent sale or had a building permit," Yahne said.

Spencer said he first met Yahne about a year ago when he was considering running for Benton County assessor, and Yahne also was thinking about being a candidate along with other employees because Wagner had indicated she might retire.

After the issue about the campaign sign had been reported to the county, Yahne's husband made a donation of "about $100" to Spencer's campaign.

Yahne said she still is upset about what happened.

"You know what happened when I got home the day she told me to take the sign down? I called Shon and told him to bring me three more. I've known him for 30 years and nobody's going to tell me I can't support him," she said.

"(Wagner) is going to say I'm a disgruntled employee, and I am, but she got me good because I wouldn't take down that sign," Yahne added.

-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com