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Olney claims county officials forced him out

A former library foundation director claims Jackson County officials helped force him out of his job after he ran for political office — an accusation strongly denied by county commissioners.

Jim Olney, who campaigned against Commissioner C.W. Smith in November's election, said he suspected he didn't get his job back at the nonprofit Jackson County Library Foundation because of pressure from county officials.

"It didn't surprise me this has happened," he said. "It surprised me the county used underhanded tactics."

Olney, who acknowledged he based his accusations on second-hand reports, stepped down as executive director in June because he said he'd heard the county had threatened to shut down the foundation's offices at the Medford library if he stayed on.

County officials deny the charges, saying there was never any pressure placed on the foundation to get rid of Olney or to prevent him from being rehired. They also said there was never a threat to oust the foundation from its offices.

"It's completely unfounded and untruthful," said Smith. He said he purposely stayed out of any county discussions about Olney because of the campaign. He said other county officials agreed to meet with foundation board members after they expressed concern over rumors that Olney might have engaged in political activities at the offices in the Medford library.

When Olney resigned his job in June, he didn't mention any behind-the-scenes pressures. At the time, he said, "I am prepared to make this sacrifice because public service requires personal sacrifices."

Olney, who denied he ever engaged in political activities in the foundation offices, said the county maintains a double standard that allowed Smith to retain his county office space while he was in the middle of a campaign.

"It's totally hypocritical," Olney said of the county's position.

Smith said that as an elected official he has the latitude to discuss anything he wants, even campaign-related issues. At the same time, he said, he never used county staff or county resources for his own purposes.

Ashland resident John Kloetzel, who worked on Olney's campaign and based his assertions on "sources at the library foundation," sharply condemned the county's actions in the issue.

"I just thought it was vindictiveness as much as anything," he said.

As a result of Olney's inability to get his old job back, Kloetzel said, Olney was forced to leave the community and accepted a similar position at the library foundation in Eugene.

Olney said he agreed with Kloetzel's comments, which also were drafted in a letter.

"Yes, I feel I got pushed out of the library foundation," said Olney.

He said he understood perfectly when he ran for office that he could not use his position as foundation director or the space in the library for any political activities.

He worked four hours a day as executive director during the primary campaign, receiving about half his $50,000 annual salary. He said if he received a call at work about the campaign, he would tell the person he would call them later on his cell phone.

Olney said he had been informed by his sources that County Administrator Danny Jordan had pressured foundation board members.

Olney said he has nothing in writing to prove the behind-the-scenes pressures the county has used, but bases it on conversations with others.

"Danny Jordan is too smart of a guy to put anything in writing," he said. "Danny Jordan's job is to protect C.W., and he did that."

Jordan said he and Dave Gilmour met with foundation board members at their request to explain county policy on political activity, but never to pressure them about Olney.

"We never told the library foundation that Jim had to leave or we were taking the office space," said Jordan.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said it's difficult to avoid talking about campaign issues at his county office. He said he has done it occasionally but only on his personal cell phone.

"It does happen," he said. "But I can't say I was running a campaign from the office. That's not the same thing."

Gilmour said the county received complaints that Olney had been running his campaign out of the foundation office, though he said there were only rumors to that effect. "The impression was that he was," he said. "Basically, we wanted to pass the message not to do that."

But Gilmour said he was unaware of any attempt to force Olney out of his office.

Gilmour and Danny Jordan met with foundation board members in 2008 in Jordan's office, and Gilmour remembers the conversation revolved around political limits for the foundation.

"As a nonprofit, you're not allowed to be involved in a political activity," he said.

Collette Boehmer, chairwoman of the foundation, declined to comment on Olney's accusations.

She said she remembered county officials informing the foundation that, "There couldn't be any political activity in the county building."

She said she didn't know if any political campaigning had occurred in the foundation's offices in the library.

Boehmer said she wouldn't respond to any questions about Jim Olney, saying it was a personnel matter.

In June 2008, Boehmer said the foundation board was "very satisfied" with Olney's performance.

The foundation hired a new executive director, Shelley Austin, in November.