A former Coquille city employee informed the city last month about her plans to sue the city for whistleblower retaliation and a failure to provide due process during the course of her firing.
Jennifer Rose, the city’s former city recorder, filed a notice with the city March 25 after her termination at the conclusion of a months-long investigatory suspension. Rose was placed on paid leave in November and terminated last month.
“Ms. Rose is alleging that the City of Coquille was negligent in failing to hire qualified individuals to process the City’s finances, took advantage of an employee willing to help try to keep the department functioning, and then targeted her as a scapegoat after she brought to light matters of public concern related to the city’s financial mismanagement,” Talia Guerriero, a Portland employment attorney representing Rose, wrote in the notice to the city.
Former City Manager Sam Baugh, who was terminated in December 2020, tells a different story, saying he placed Rose on administrative leave after getting reports from Merina and Company, a firm the city hired to look at the city finances, claiming Rose was difficult to work with and hindered attempts to review city finances.
“All the indicators we used pointed to her, and that’s why I put her on administrative leave,” Baugh told The World. “I worked with our city insurance, the CIS Group, and our city attorney because I was getting reports back from Merina and Company and our new finance director, and they said this is something fishy and it all points back to this one person.”
According to Rose’s claims, the problems started in 2020, when “several key finance employees left all at once and the department started to fall apart.”
Rose’s attorney says the then-city recorder took on additional responsibilities in the city — namely, the management of the city’s payroll records — under the direction of Baugh, who was hired by the city in late 2019.
Rose claims her lack of training by the city resulted in errors with the payroll system. She says she began reporting to Baugh her concerns of financial mismanagement and that “many financial matters were slipping through the cracks.”
Baugh told The World some of Rose's complaints are legitimate. He said shortly before he was hired, the city council chose to get rid of the finance director and public works director. The goal was to restructure the finance department.
“They knew accounting was not my strong suit,” Baugh said. “The whole purpose of it was to restructure the finance department. When I brought my ideas of how to restructure the finance department, they didn’t like any of it.”
Baugh said Rose volunteered to take over payroll early in 2020, a move he agreed to. In her claim, Rose says Baugh requested she fill in the gaps, not that she volunteered. The city initially used Cardinal for payroll services, but Baugh and Rose say that did not work out. Rose said the city failed to train her on the new system, while Baugh said Cardinal was not set up to handle the city’s payroll, pointing to the city’s multiple unions and pay structures.
When the city then moved to ADP for payroll, Rose said she still wasn’t trained on the new technology, leading to errors in the system. She said Baugh was unresponsive to any concerns she raised.
“In or around the Fall of 2020, it became clear that Mr. Baugh did not want to hear Ms. Rose’s reports any longer and wanted to silence her,” Rose’s letter to the city claims. “The reason for Mr. Baugh’s resistance became apparent because Mr. Baugh was personally implicated in the financial mismanagement.”
Baugh again paints a very different picture. In early 2020, Coquille hired HMW CPAs & Associates to help with the finances. In an email from Laura Fisher, assurance services partner, to Baugh’s city manager email address, Fisher said it was difficult to find information on city finances because Rose refused to assist.
In the email, Fisher said reports that should have taken 10 minutes to produce took weeks with Rose. Fisher said Rose was so slow to return some reports, she asked other employees to do them.
The city later worked with Merina and Company. In a report from Merina, the company said Rose was difficult to work with and seemed to be attempting to stall any progress on fixing the finance department.
“Ms. Rose directly undermined the progress we were attempting to make in building a team within the Finance Department based on a culture of customer service,” the report reads. “Her communications were at times inappropriate and unprofessional.”
The World acquired emails to the City of Coquille from HMW CPAs, Merina, CIS Oregon and the Public Employee Retirement System. Representatives from all four agencies voiced similar concerns that Rose was hindering their ability to look at city finances.
Rose denied the claims in a statement.
“I understand that one of Mr. Baugh's retaliatory allegations against me was that I failed to communicate with vendors,” Rose wrote. “However, even the City's woefully biased investigation did not substantiate this allegation. Of course I was more than willing to assist the City's efforts to correct the City's financial situation.”
Rose says she escalated her concerns to the city council, requesting a meeting to report the city manager’s “wrongdoings” through the city attorney. Rose says that right after the city attorney arranged for a meeting between Rose and the city council, Baugh informed her she was under investigation for “the very wrongdoings that he himself committed,” Rose’s letter of intent claims.
“The November 9, 2020 Notice of Investigation was blatantly retaliatory and contained no fewer than sixteen areas of false allegations,” Rose’s attorney wrote in the claim.
Baugh said retaliation was never part of his decision. He said he began discussing Rose’s employment with the city attorney and city insurance company in early October, long before Rose reached out to the council. When he received the Merina report, he placed Rose on paid administrative leave.
Rose took her claims of Baugh’s mismanagement to the city council November 23, after which the city council terminated Baugh’s employment. At the time, city officials cited “issues with city finances” as the reason for Baugh’s dismissal, declining to comment further to The World on the matter.
But that meeting didn’t end the city’s investigation into Rose, she said. The city kept her on administrative leave and proceeded with what she calls a “witch hunt” investigation into her management of city funds, and which Rose said resulted in her termination earlier this year.
“The City’s actions appear to be an attempt to grasp at straws to ruin Ms. Rose and silence her for good as a result of her willingness to provide evidence of the city’s mismanagement,” Rose’s attorney wrote.
Interim City Manager Scott Sanders, who’s been the city’s top administrator since Baugh’s firing, said he couldn’t comment on the allegations due to the pending litigation.
Rose’s claim hasn’t yet been filed in court. She’s asking the city for an “honest and thorough” review of the evidence used in firing her and the “botched” investigations as well as a hearing to “clear her name and restore her employment.”
Baugh said Wednesday he was unaware of Rose’s potential lawsuit. He said he just wants to find a new job and get on with his life.