Bad egg? Retaliation against whistleblower? Building official sidelined in ‘conduct’ dispute

San Juan County’s chief building official remains on paid administrative leave and his employment with the county is in doubt.

And, the merits of his report of improper government action, a so-called “whistleblower” claim, would appear to be up in the air as well.

An eight-year county employee, John Geniuch was escorted out of his office at the Community Development and Planning Department Feb. 11 by two senior-level managers and placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation involving a trio of concerns over employee conduct.

He left the building without incident, according to Friday Harbor attorney Nick Power, who represents Geniuch in the labor-management dispute, and who described his client’s exit from the building as civil, a matter-of-fact affair and “no big deal.”

“He packed up his stuff and left,” said Power, who joined his client at CDPD prior to his departure. “That’s about all there was to it.”

Hired as a plans examiner, Geniuch was promoted to deputy building official in late 2010 and appointed chief building official in early 2014. The position is “non-represented,” meaning it is a managerial post and not subject to provision of the county labor union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Geniuch contends that revenue generated by building permit fees has been improperly funneled to other CDPD-managed programs and that the ongoing practice is out of compliance with state law. He said he repeatedly notified CDPD management and others of his concerns in the latter half of the previous year, was repeatedly told that his interpretation of RCW 82.02.020 is incorrect, and on Feb. 4 filed a whistleblower claim with the county human resources department and the prosecuting attorney.

On Feb. 17, Power and Geniuch met with the county manager, human resources manager and CDPD Director Sam Gibboney to discuss the concerns leveled by management about his job performance and that reportedly led to his dismissal. Power said that such a meeting, known as a Loudermill hearing, is standard protocol for government employees facing potential termination and functions as a “due process” hearing in which an employee can contest, rebut and clarify facts surrounding allegations in question.

Power declined to describe the allegations, but said that two appear to border on “fabrication” and the third, while even if true, would amount to a “very minor” transgression. Power is unsure how long the county intends to keep his client on administrative leave and said they have yet to receive notice about the status of his employment.

Calls by the Journal seeking comment from the county manager have not been returned.

As chief building official, Geniuch manages the regimen of county building inspections and oversees building plans and permit reviews. Duties of the position include handling disputes over local building code and making code interpretations to resolve such disputes, serving as department liaison for the Building Advisory Committee and drafting legislation to help clarify or make local building codes more effective.

Geniuch earns high marks from those in the local building trades, according to John Evans, executive director of San Juan Builders Association. His organizational and communication skills, and knowledge of the code and challenges faced by local builders, have helped create a climate of cooperation in an arena that often has proved contentious in the past.

“He’s the first person who’s been there in a long time who’s organized,” Evans said. “He’s been able to communicate well on the finer points of the policies and programs the county has in place, and that’s important.”