Former spokeswoman settles harassment complaint with Fire District 3
The former spokesperson for Jackson County Fire District No. 3 has left the agency with a six-figure settlement after the state found “substantial evidence” that a deputy chief had retaliated against her for complaining of sexual harassment.
Ashley Blakely agreed in October to withdraw a civil rights complaint filed with the Bureau of Labor and Industry and leave the agency as part of a settlement valued at $102,669, according to a press release issued Wednesday by Fire District 3 Chief Robert Horton.
The district paid Blakely a year’s salary, her legal fees, unpaid time off and “some ancillary items.”
The settlement closes a yearlong state investigation into Blakely’s removal as a public information officer in the summer of 2018 and the alleged conduct of Deputy Chief John Patterson.
According to BOLI’s case file, obtained by the Mail Tribune through a public records request, state investigators sided with Blakely, finding “substantial evidence” that Patterson engaged in two “unlawful employment practices” against Blakely: retaliating against her for taking medical leave in the spring of 2018, and retaliating against her for filing a sexual harassment complaint against him in 2015 — a harassment complaint the fire district was never able to substantiate.
“The record supports that complainant was not restored to the position she held when her leave commenced,” according to BOLI.
In a statement, Horton said Fire District 3 staff “fully complied” with BOLI investigators but disagreed with its findings.
“While Fire District 3 strongly disagrees with the allegations, factual basis of the claims and ultimate findings of the bureau, we support the processes in place to mitigate such disputes,” Horton wrote.
In an interview, Blakely said she felt vindicated by the state’s finding.
“For me, the way that I had been feeling, it was nice to finally have a piece of paper that showed that my feelings were validated,” Blakely said.
Blakely said she decided to part ways after 4 years and 7 months because she saw no changes at the district after the August finding.
“Since there really was no change, I needed to step back and know that I was OK,” Blakely said, “because it had been, for me, a very black-and-white issue and I just knew that I needed to step away to kind of be out of that environment and get healthy for me and my family.”
Blakely declined to speak about specifics of how she was treated, but her complaint said that Patterson had engaged in more than a dozen instances of sexual harassment in 2015, including claims he called her a “dirty b----” and “wanted to push her head into a pillow and pull her hair.”
According to the BOLI case file, Patterson denied ever making sexual comments to Blakely, and he was never disciplined.
“At the conclusion of the 2015 investigation, (Patterson) received a written letter from the chief saying if those things had happened, they couldn’t happen again,” the BOLI report said.
The former Fire District 3 chief moved Blakely under his supervision until the end of 2016, then she was moved back under Patterson’s leadership.
BOLI investigators found substantial evidence she “faced a hostile workplace” through 2019. In one instance, Patterson went more than 100 days without a face-to-face conversation with Blakely, according to BOLI’s report, and multiple staff members told investigators that Patterson became “unfriendly” to Blakely after her harassment complaint — no longer telling her hello or goodbye.
A male fire investigator told a BOLI investigator that Patterson had begun avoiding him as well because Blakely’s desk was nearby.
In March of 2018, Blakely asked Horton in writing for a new supervisor, documents show. In Blakely’s two-page letter she repeated sexual comments Patterson allegedly made to her in 2015, and claimed Patterson continued to make made “subtle innuendos, making me feel uncomfortable.”
Horton denied Blakely’s request in a response dated April 2, 2018. The letter addressed to Blakely said he did not revisit “issues that were resolved” in 2015, and said Blakely’s new claims of “subtle innuendo” lacked enough detail for him to act.
“Your letter did not provide any detail regarding this allegation, and at no time prior to this letter had this issue been raised by you,” Horton wrote. “If issues are occurring, it is your obligation to raise them at the time they occur.”