Washoe County offers legal aid to harassed county employees

June 25, 2022 GMT

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Washoe County has established a legal assistance fund for county employees who’ve been unfairly attacked or harassed in public as tempers increasingly flare during hostile confrontations over election procedures and other controversies.

The legal and personal services approved this week will be available to county workers, but not elected officials, The Reno Gazette Journal reported.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the rights of our employees are protected,” County Manager Eric Brown said.

“We’ve seen situations where the public discourse has gotten increasingly hostile,” he said.

The county commission voted 3-1 on Tuesday to authorize the county manager to spend a total of up to $150,000 per fiscal year on such efforts. The $150,000 cap applies to the entire fund, not each individual who would be eligible to draw from it.

Any expenditures beyond the $150,000 would require specific approval from the commission.

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Brown said the county has a responsibility as an employer to make sure it’s supporting its employees.

“We have had situations where county employees – not elected officials – have received death threats, have received malicious and fictitious claims made against them,” he said. “Some of this has been extremely hurtful to their families.”

The assistance would be available to employees who are “unfairly publicly attacked, harassed, or disparaged by members of the public or political organizations,” according to the language approved by the commissioners.

A background report by county staff said “aggressive comments, threats, conspiracy theories and false accusations … can have the impact of deterring qualified individuals from continuing their careers in government service with the county or discouraging individuals who may be considering careers in government service.”

Brown said the initiative would help employees — especially those without the wherewithal to retain their own counsel or other resources — to defend themselves.

“It is in no way any attempt to suppress criticism of any elected official or public official,” he said.

Commissioners Alexis Hill, Kitty Jung and Bob Lucey voted in favor, Jeanne Herman was opposed, and Vaughn Hartung was absent.

Public comment was strongly against this proposal, calling it a slush fund and worse.

“You want to give these people that make over $100,000 a stipend for legal fees when they screw up?” said Kenji Otto, who ran and came in second in the Republican primary for county clerk. “Give me a break. You people are disgusting.”

Kris Engstrom spoke in favor of the proposal, saying that over the lunch break she’d been watching Jan. 6 hearing testimony in Washington, with people describing mobs entering their homes and ruining their lives.

“It’s clear from some of the hostility in this room that this could happen to workers who are just doing their jobs … working for the county,” Engstrom said during the commission meeting.

One commenter, Val White, said staff could get more insurance for legal coverage if they want it.

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“If you think you’re going to be harassed or criticized, it’s not our responsibility to pay for your extra legal expenses,” she said.

White described it as setting up a large bank account to use for legal fees to attack residents “who dare displease us with their comments.”

The language approved by the commission says eligibility for assistance would be determined on a case-by-case basis by the Washoe County Manager with input from the Washoe County Workplace Violence Committee.

“The objective of the program would be to provide employees support against attacks, harassment, or disparagement that occur or originate outside of the workplace but that relate in some significant degree to the role of the subject employees as employees of the county.”