My Edmonds News sat down with City of Edmonds Finance Director Lorenzo Hines on Thursday to discuss the findings of an investigation into a complaint he made against Edmonds City Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis and Michael Plunkett. Here is a summary of that interview:
Q: Now that the report has been issued, where do you go from here?
A: I haven’t made that determination yet. From a legal aspect, I’ve still got to sit back and figure out what my options are. From a professional aspect, I’m going to continue to serve the mayor and the council and the 40,000 folks that are in this town. And I am very proud of the work we’ve done here, despite the limited resources, we have done a yeoman’s job – me and my staff. Right now my focus is on closing 2010 and getting the 2010 financials done because that’s paramount. That’s where my head’s at right now.
Q: You definitely feel that things have not been resolved as a result of this?
A: I respect the conclusion that the investigator came to, basically that no laws were broken, state or federal laws. But I also appreciate the fact that there was an acknowledgment that there were certain rude or uncivil behaviors. And that if the council was bound by the same code of conduct that city employees are, there would be an issue. I think this was a lesson for us all because I had no idea – even in a city this small and with us working so closely together – that we’re really not playing under the same rules. That was a lesson learned. To see that the council doesn’t have the same standards that we do – that was a surprise.
Q: There seems to be an impression by people who don’t know you and see your interactions in council meetings that you are being difficult. That you are not answering questions. Have you heard that from others, that people see that in you?
A: I haven’t heard that from others and as a matter of fact, I hear the exact opposite. That’s always what I strive to provide. There are seven members over there and the mayor that I try to make sure have the adequate and sometimes an overabundance of information. Ultimately my job is to make sure they have all the information necessary for them to make a decision. As far as the perception of me being difficult, all I can do is keep providing the information. For those who perceive me as difficult or not responsive, my door is always open. All you’ve got to do is call. And the council knows that. And any other citizens – I’ve had many meetings with citizens, privately and in groups here in my office and I’ve met with members of the levy committee as small group and to educate them on the city’s financials. So as they are putting together their plans, I want to make sure that they have the accurate information regarding the city’s status and what our forecasts are looking like.
Q: What about the perception that you are not answering questions? For example, emails have been circulating that “I’ve sent Lorenzo an email months ago and he never got back to me.”
A: We’ve had a situation here where we’ve been answering questions, and the fact that that question’s been answered and the answer has not been widely publicized. So the strategy we took with the budget, when we were going through that process, was as we answered questions from the council, we would post both the question and the answer on the (city) website. I thought that was very successful. I thought it proved to folks that we were very responsive, and we continue to be responsive. That’s my job.
Q: Councilmember Buckshnis has said many times that she needs information that you are not providing. Is there something missing?
A: I’m not clear what her requests are. As far as I’m concerned, we have responded to her requests. Now if there are still more requests out there that we haven’t responded to, she’s welcome to put all of those questions onto to 1, 2, 3, 4 or how many pages it needs and send those questions to me en masse. What I will do is answer those questions and I will post those answers and the questions on the website, and perhaps we can move on. Because we’ve got bigger issues to deal with in this city besides the constant banter about questions. But we may find that some of those questions have been answered – answers may be sitting out there in the 60 some odd questions regarding the budget. So I would ask that that cadre of questions be reviewed to make sure it hasn’t already been answered, so that way I’m not answering the question twice. Our resources here are limited, my time is tight. She’s more than welcome to send me those questions and we’ll be happy to address them. Send them through the mayor or send them directly to me.
Q: What about Councilmember Plunkett?
A: I don’t know what his motivations are. All I know is that there has been a fair amount of tension between us, particularly this year.
Q: What about your relationship with the other councilmembers?
A: The council generally knows that the door is open. For anyone who is truly interested in learning what we do, I take great joy in teaching. Once folks understand how this thing works, we become, I think, as a group more equipped to handle future issues, because we already understand the budget document and the implications of those numbers, and then we can move to the policy decisions that are affected by those numbers. In my mind – and maybe this is naïve – but we elect folks to make the policy decisions. Where are we going? What’s your vision? Where are we going to be in 10 years? That’s why I thought they were elected. We’ve got some folks who want a lot of books and try to get into the day-to-day stuff. We’ve got folks who can do that – we’ve got CPAs and MBAs sitting over here who can do that. We also have the state auditor who comes in once a year. They know what they are doing because they audit municipalities all the time. They’ll be in here at some time in late March. So everything’s handled but if anyone wants to know any thing about the financials, the door’s open. Just come talk to me.
Q: What have the auditor’s reports shown?
A: There are three tiers of auditor notes. The first tier is findings, that’s the most severe. Last year, on the last audit we had no findings. The second tier is management representation letters – basically we found something, it’s not something serious enough to be a finding but you need to fix it. We had one of those, an issue dealing with the court. The next level is exit items — these are things that need to be addressed and we’ll come back and test them next year just to make sure they’ve been addressed. They don’t rise to the level of a management rep letter at this time, but you need to address them to make sure they don’t. Our last audit report had a number of exit items, and one management rep letter and no findings. Those exit items I am addressing one by one so that when the auditors come back in March, we’ve addressed those items. The report’s available, and three ocuncilmembers were at the exit conference so they heard it all, and we continue to move toward addressing all the issues. I am a former auditor so I understand how they think and what the expectation is of the audit team.
Q: How do you fix this situation so that people don’t sit down and watch a council meeting and see that sort of stuff going on?
A: I’m open to any dialogue with those two (Buckshnis and Plunkett) at any point in time. Frankly, I think it’s probably overdue. If they are willing to sit down with me, I am more than happy to sit down with them. But I’ve got 40,900 folks that I’ve got to take care of, and I’ve got to manage their money and I’ve got to be able to report to them how their money is being spent. They’re my priority. I work for the mayor and I work for the council, but those 40,900 folks – ultimately, they’re my bosses so I’m ultimately worried about what they think. We’ve got some folks that care deeply about what they are doing, and we just need to sit down and figure out how we need to work together.
I am concerned about the perception. Even though I am just a director here, I am part of the City of Edmonds, and I am a little concerned about the perception that folks are having on the other side of the camera. Because they elect us, they pay us to do a yeoman’s job and I hope that they maintain that perception even through the banter that goes on at the council. I’m worried about that and when I do respond to questions, I’m not only responding to the council, I’m responding to folks on the other side of the camera. And if anyone needs clarification, come see me. The door’s always open.