If you have attended an Edmonds City Council meeting during the past year – or watched the taped version on local cable television – it’s likely you are familiar with ongoing tension between City of Edmonds Finance Director Lorenzo Hines and two Edmonds City Councilmembers, Diane Buckshnis and Michael Plunkett.
From Hines’ perspective, that tension was bad enough that he wrote an email to City Human Resources Director Debi Humann in November 2010, complaining that emails and personal interactions between himself and Buckshnis and Plunkett “have grown more and more hostile.” In response to that email, the city hired an attorney – John Chun of Summit Law Group – to investigate the complaint as possible discrimination, and Chun’s findings were submitted to Mayor Mike Cooper on Jan. 18.
At issue was whether the City of Edmonds – through Councilmembers Buckshnis and Plunkett – “engaged in unlawful discrimination, including harassment, under state or federal law.” The report concludes that such discrimination didn’t occur, and Buckshnis said it clearly exonerates herself and Plunkett.
In an interview with My Edmonds News Thursday, Hines said that he respects the conclusion of the investigator that the councilmembers’ conduct didn’t violate state or federal law. “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.”
In his report, Chun noted that “certain of the communications and comments at issue may be construed as rude or uncivil; and such conduct may violate a city employment policy if committed by an employee. But as Councilmembers are not employees, this investigation did not address whether there was any violation of any of the City’s employment policies.”
City of Edmonds employment policy defines harassment as “verbal or physical conduct that demeans or shows hostility or aversion toward another employee or members of the public.” Examples of prohibited conduct, according to the policy, include “creating a hostile work environment or making slurs and demeaning comments to employees or members of the public relating to race, ethnic background, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age or disability.” The policy also states that the city “will not tolerate harassment or retaliation of any kind that is made by employees toward co-workers or members of the public,” and also states that employees “are expected to show respect for each other and the public at all times, despite individual differences.”
In his initial complaint to Humann, dated Nov. 2, Hines said that Buckshnis “portrays me as incompetent, lazy and slow to respond to her requests.” Plunkett, meanwhile, “has been hostile via email and during Finance Committee and Citizens Technology Advisory Committee meetings,” Hines noted.
Hines claims that the bad blood between him and Buckshnis started in November 2009, when Buckshnis was running for city council, and made a campaign issue out of what she said was $2 million that the city was missing from its general ledger. “As it turns out, Ms. Buckshnis misread this city’s financial information and I corrected her publicly and in the press,” Hines wrote in his email to Humann. “It appears that Ms. Buckshnis is intent on influencing/pressuring the Mayor to terminate my employment with the city.” As for Plunkett, Hines told Humann that “he and I once had a respectful relationship. He even verbally endorsed my appointment as City Finance Director during my appointment hearing (in 2009).” By late summer 2010, however, Hines said the relationship “soured” between him and Plunkett. “I don’t know what his motives are,” Hines said.
In his report, Chun noted that Hines, who is African-American, said he was uncertain whether race had anything to do with the councilmembers’ behavior. “I hope not,” Chun quoted Hines as saying. “Neither has said anything to show that race is what is at issue. It makes me wonder, because I’m the only director of color and the only one treated this way. But I really don’t know. I think it’s about retaliation for the missing money issue.”
Chun also included in his report the results of his interview with city employee Jeannie Dines, who recorded minutes at a city Finance Committee meeting in November 2010. It was alleged that Buckshnis, who lost the 2009 election but was appointed to a vacant seat on the council in January 2010, made derogatory comments about Hines during that meeting. Chun said that Dines told him she did not recall such comments, but did remember that some members of the public “said negative things” about Hines, “related to frustrations about not receiving certain information.” According to Dines “the comments were not racial; nor were they political,” Chun said.
My Edmonds News asked Hines whether he was aware of the perception shared by some citizens, which is reflected in both verbal and written comments and emails that we have received, that he is unwilling to answer questions or respond to email inquiries about the city’s finances. He appeared genuinely surprised by the question.
“I haven’t heard that from others and as a matter of fact I hear the exact opposite,” Hines said. “That’s always what I strive to provide. 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…I’ve had many meetings with citizens, privately and in groups here in my office and I’ve met with members of the (city) levy committee as small group and to educate them on the city’s financials.”
As part of the investigation, Plunkett and Buckshnis submitted a written statement stating that Hines’ allegations “are frivolous and not worthy of lengthy commentary.” In the statement, the two councilmembers cite the council’s passage of new finance policies in April 2010 — Resolution 1226 and Ordinance 3789 — “so Mr. Hines would have a written council approved document that was designed to help him understand the expectations of the city council, including creating a team approach between the city council and Mr. Hines.”
“As council members, we are stewards of the public trust and charged with making finance documents transparent and readable (per the new policies) for the citizens of Edmonds,” the statement said. “By definition, we must have financial reports that are accurate, easily traceable and citizen friendly in order to make informed decisions… Mr. Hines seems to have difficulty understanding our role in city government and the reason for our inquiries and necessity for accurate and timely information.”
For his part, Hines told My Edmonds News he is willing to meet with Plunkett and Buckshnis in an effort to solve their differences, for the good of the city. “I’m open to any dialogue with those two at any point in time. Frankly, I think it’s probably overdue. But if they are willing to sit down with me, I am more than happy to sit down with them.
“I think the people who put us here both in an elected situation and a hiring situation, expect us to be cooperative,” Hines said.
John Chun’s complete report, including attachments, is available here.
You can read the entire question-and-answer interview with Hines here.