Clark County had finally filled its vacant economic development specialist position in March. But as tension between the county council and county manager intensified, the new employee lasted only three days.
James Sauls’ first day with the county was March 2. By midweek, as county officials became aware of social media posts that led to his demotion at a previous job, he had resigned.
“I hadn’t considered that they hadn’t done their research,” Sauls said. “I walked into a muddy political mess.”
Previously, Sauls worked as an economic development manager for the city of Raleigh, N. C.
In 2017, Sauls admitted to managing a Twitter account called “Hot Rod Earl,” which had insulted local politicians and made a sexually demeaning comment about conservative political pundit Tomi Lahren, according to The News & Observer (Raleigh).
Sauls apologized but was later demoted. He added that, during a two-month interview process with Clark County, the issue was not brought up. Then-Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee said Tuesday that he was not aware of the tweets during the interview process.
The county economic development specialist is tasked with advising and representing the county council and administering council policies. The position had been vacant for several years.
“I was excited to get someone to fill the position,” Councilor Gary Medvigy said. “I was a little surprised that there was, I don’t think, an acceptable minimum background search was done.”
After landing the job, Sauls prepared to move his wife and two kids across the U.S. He said he incurred about $5,200 in moving expenses.
“From a job perspective, it was a great opportunity,” Sauls said. “I thought that, ‘Hey, I’ll be able to do what I really want to do.’ ”
But on March 4, in what turned out to be Sauls’ third and final day with the county, Henessee received an email from Councilor Temple Lentz.
“I just heard about the curious history of your pick for the economic development position at Clark County,” Lentz wrote in an email obtained by The Columbian through a public records request.
Lentz attached a link to an article about Sauls’ previous demotion.
“Fascinating what we can learn from other cities’ newspapers,” the email read.
The second sentence was an apparent reference to Henessee’s interview in January for a job in Joplin, Mo. Less than a week after the email, Lentz expressed dismay that she and other councilors had learned about the interview by reading a newspaper story.
“I’d like to know what your plan is on this,” Lentz’s email continued. “Rescinding an offer based on misrepresentation is not unprecedented. Unless this is something ‘we’ already knew about?”
Henessee replied a few minutes later.
“At this point I am not planning to terminate until I have more facts. I obviously did not know about this during the time of the interview since it would have clearly played an important role,” Henessee wrote.
Henessee continued to say that he would meet with Sauls and a human resources representative the next day to “discuss this and see if there are any other issues that we need to be made aware of.”
“If I am satisfied with his answers he will be allowed to remain employed with Clark County with clear written parameters if there are additional items that come up that are not disclosed or I am not satisfied with his answers he will be let go,” Henessee wrote.
Later that day, Sauls stopped by Henessee’s office to ask a question. Sauls said the county manager asked him to close the door before broaching the topic.
“My heart just sank,” Sauls said.
According to Sauls, Henessee said that councilors already critical of him could use the new information against him. While Henessee said he believed in second chances and would collect more information, he suggested that Sauls should resign.
Henessee declined to comment about the interaction.
That afternoon, Sauls resigned. In an email to Henessee, he cited the need to provide full-time care for a family member dealing with a health crisis. Henessee acknowledged in a brief reply that he understood and wished Sauls luck.
“Obviously, that’s not the 100 percent reason why I decided to resign,” Sauls said. “It was, really, a shocking whirlwind.”
Less than two weeks later, on March 13, Henessee submitted his resignation at the council’s behest. Henessee parted with $85,000 in severance pay and six months of county-paid health insurance.
No official reason has been offered for Henessee’s resignation or the council’s request for it.
On March 23, Sauls wrote an email to councilors about his resignation with the subject line, “Staff treatment.”
“What else was I to do, let (Henessee) defend me only to have him leave and you force the new county manager to fire me? No, it was better to walk away from a job that I was truly excited about,” Sauls wrote. “I am writing this now as I see that Shawn recently resigned. He mentioned to me that this may have become an issue in order to use it against him. My family should not have been a pawn in your local politics.”
Sauls mentioned that Republican Council Chair Eileen Quiring — along with Henessee, a human resources staffer and a representative from the Columbia River Economic Development Council — had participated in his interview process. Quiring could not be reached for comment for this story.
“The timing of it was just what was crazy,” Sauls said. “I think it was just another jab at the county manager, but again, that’s just opinion.”
Describing it as a personnel matter, Lentz, the council’s only Democrat, said she did not have a specific comment on Sauls’ tenure. She said that Sauls’ resignation didn’t play a role in Henessee’s departure.
“(Sauls) worked for the county for a matter of days and then quit,” Lentz said. “I think any comment on how he was treated should be reflected through that lens.”
For his part, Henessee didn’t weigh in on whether politics played a role in Sauls’ resignation.
“I don’t want to speculate on something like that,” Henessee said.