King County paid its longtime director of juvenile detention a $420,000 confidential settlement to ward off a possible lawsuit — even though the director said she never made such a threat.
Pam Jones, who had worked for the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention for 39 years, and led the juvenile division for the last 12 years, agreed to retire in March as part of the settlement with the county.
The settlement called on Jones to file a “claim for damages form” with the county, and she would then receive $320,178 for “emotional distress damages” plus an additional $100,000, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.
Jones completed the claim for damages form the same day she signed the settlement. In it, she writes: “I believe that I have been treated unfairly in employment at King County concerning the status of my position in violation of public policy.” She offered no further details.
It’s unclear exactly why Jones received the settlement. Alex Fryer, a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine, said he couldn’t speak about the specifics of the case.
“In lieu of a dispute associated with an assigned transfer, Ms. Jones was paid to bridge the gap to retirement,” the county’s Office of Risk Management, which negotiated the settlement, wrote. Jones’ salary was about $170,000 in 2018.
Jones said that she asked for a settlement when she decided to retire, but in an interview offered little clarity.
“If I’m honest, I don’t know, I honestly don’t know what happened. I’ve been around the county long enough to know that there are things,” Jones said, pausing. “I can read the handwriting on the wall that something was going on, they weren’t being up front about what that was.”
Jennifer Hills, director of risk management for the county, said that factors considered included “the employee’s length of service, level of compensation, and whether they are a member of a protected class (i.e., race, religion, gender, age) as well as the time, expense, and resources required in litigation that may impact business objectives and operations.”
It’s at least the second six-figure settlement paid to a longtime county director in recent months. In May, Kevin Brown, the former director of the county parks division, reached a $275,000 settlement with the county after alleging that Constantine improperly pressured him into signing a concessions contract with a company co-owned by a friend and political supporter of Constantine.
Constantine has strongly denied the allegations.
Councilmember Rod Dembowski, chair of the Metropolitan King County Council, said he knew that Constantine wanted to make a change in the juvenile division, but didn’t know about either Jones’ or Brown’s settlement until he was told by reporters. Council members are notified once per quarter about settlements of more than $100,000.
“There is some concern about this and wanting to be kept apprised of these things and I think we’re going to have some discussion with the executive branch on when it’s important to inform council of major litigation and settlements,” Dembowski said. “These two folks are public-facing leaders of the county government.”
Jones was closely involved with the construction and planning of the county’s controversial new Children and Family Justice Center, which includes a new youth jail as well as 10 courtrooms and program space. Critics contended that the county, which wants to eliminate youth incarceration, should not be spending money on a new youth jail, while supporters argued that the current facility is rundown and outdated.
Sometime earlier this year, Constantine’s office asked Jones to relinquish the day-to-day management of the juvenile division and spearhead the launch of the new facility, which is scheduled to open later this year.
“There’s a lot of logistics involved in that move and Pam Jones was very intimately involved with the new building,” Fryer said. “We needed someone to be on top of that.”
Jones viewed it as a demotion, not in salary, but in responsibility, and decided to retire.
She said that Constantine’s office was “eager to move me out of my position.”
“When you go to retire and you ask for a settlement, no one’s going to give you a settlement to retire. Really they should have looked at me and said go ahead and retire,” Jones said. “The question would be why were they so willing to give it, I don’t have an answer.”
The county’s Office of Risk Management described it, in a list of recent county settlements, as a case of “age and race discrimination.”
But both Jones and Fryer say that’s not the case. Jones, who is 60 and African American, was unaware that the settlement was described that way and said she didn’t allege age or race discrimination.
Fryer said that risk management has to classify settlements in some way.
“The feeling was that she was a protected class, by nature of her age and race, and if there was not an agreement, that would be the likely cause of action” in a potential lawsuit, he said.
The settlement agreement, signed by Jones and by Casey Sixkiller, Constantine’s chief operating officer, says that neither party admits wrongdoing but are entering the agreement “to avoid the risks and expense of potential litigation.”
The settlement states explicitly that Jones waives “any rights she may have under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.”
The agreement says that both Jones and the county will keep the settlement confidential to the extent permitted by law.
Jones also agrees not to make any “disparaging or derogatory remarks” that cast her former department, Sixkiller or Constantine “in an unfavorable light.” The county also agreed not to make such remarks about Jones.
If anybody does make such remarks about someone else, “then any of the other parties may disparage or make derogatory remarks toward the person violating the terms,” the settlement says.
The agreement was finalized the day after Jones testified in front of the County Council at a hearing on the county’s continued use of solitary confinement for detained youth against county policy, although both parties said the timing was unrelated.
Dembowski, who co-sponsored the law banning the practice, praised Jones’ work.
“The juvenile facility that Pam ran actually complied with the ordinance, for all intents and purposes,” he said. “It was the kids that aged out and were part of the adult division where they were still using the practice.”