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Governor’s Office fires equity office director over leadership, management

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has terminated the director of its Office of Equity, Dr. Karen Johnson, after two years of service. She was the first person to hold the position.

In a statement forwarded to the media on Monday, the Governor’s Office said that Johnson was given the opportunity to resign but chose to separate instead.

“She launched this ground-breaking office and contributed greatly to starting this important work,” the statement said. “However, the office has experienced a lack of stability in agency operations and the work environment, including high vacancy rates, high employee turnover and budgetary concerns. We remain committed to the work and the success of this office moving forward. We determined this will require new leadership.”

In response to the statement from the Governor’s Office, Johnson told McClatchy that she found their statement ironic because she had brought her own concerns about a lack of stability in agency operations, vacancy and turnover rates to the office in January. However, she said she was prevented from addressing the concerns because she was under investigation at the time, and it might have been perceived as retaliation.

She said she felt like she was trying to be a good leader.

Johnson said she was bothered by the fact that the Governor’s Office terminated her so quickly that she was unable to say goodbye to her colleagues; she said she worried about what that meant for others working within the office.

Johnson also said that she felt like she was prepared for the “public crucifixion,” thanks to her faith.

“This is hurtful, it’s harmful and our office was established to address government causing harm to people,” Johnson said. “The irony is that what I was hired to address is what I’ve had to experience, even though I am not questioning their right to say ‘you served at my pleasure and you no longer please.’”

McClatchy requested and is waiting on responsive records regarding an investigation opened during Johnson’s time working for the governor’s office.

This is not the first time Johnson has been fired from an official position.

Documents obtained by McClatchy from the Pierce County Human Resources Department showed that Johnson was fired from her role as the assistant director of human resources in 2018, citing multiple reasons, including taking unscheduled time off and scheduling her own work hours despite set time expectations from the agency.

The acting human resources director, Tia Bertrand, also noted in a letter that at one point Johnson became confrontational about the hours she scheduled herself to work.

“I explained that I was not used to engaging in that level of friction or conflict in the workplace,” Bertrand wrote. “You said that you engage at that level often.”

Over the course of her time there, Johnson refused to do an assignment that she considered “lower-level work,” and decided on her own terms that she would work from home without notifying the director, according to Bertrand’s letter.

In her first meeting with a team of HR managers, Johnson disagreed when other members of the group wanted to discuss a new topic.

“You turned your chair away from the table, crossed your arms, and remained with your back to the group, exhibiting your displeasure,” Bertrand wrote. “Your behavior caused other team members to be reluctant to interact with you.”

Asked about her termination from Pierce County, Johnson told McClatchy “different people, different political parties.”

“Same work to dismantle systemic racism while navigating the discriminatory and oppression tactics I was hired to dismantle. Same harmful impact,” Johnson added.

“Now is the time for the champions of a just and equitable future to plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize because everyone has experienced harm, both the oppressed and the oppressor.“

Johnson was a founder of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, which was formed in 2015 after an Olympia police officer shot two young Black men accused of shoplifting in west Olympia. The group organized a number of community meetings to amplify Black voices in the community and address issues such as implicit bias.