Fired HR director files written complaint alleging wrongful termination, retaliation

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Former City of Edmonds Human Resources Director Debi Humann, fired from her job Sept. 22 after Mayor Mike Cooper said he had lost confidence in her, filed a written complaint Thursday morning alleging she was wrongfully terminated from her job.

In her complaint, Humann — who is being represented by Seattle attorney Cliff Freed —  said she was fired in retaliation for providing documents to the Washington State Auditor that “detailed improper payroll practices” after the Auditor’s Office received an anonymous complaint. A news release from Freed’s office stated that Humann’s termination “came almost immediately upon the heels of her advising the Mayor of her participation” in the audit.

“As my former position as HR Director requires, when allegations of violations are brought to my attention, I am required to take appropriate action,” Humann said.

Humann’s complaint is being filed in connection with the Local Government Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, RCW 42.41.050, the release said. Through that process, she is entitled to have a hearing before a state administrative law judge, who may award her back pay, attorneys’ fees and costs, and reinstatement to her job. The judge may also award personal monetary penalties against the Mayor, the release added.

“I look forward to having the facts come out through the report that will be issued by the State Auditors’ Office, and through the processes allowed for in city policies,” Humann said. “I am confident that the process will show that I acted at all times in the best interests of the citizens of Edmonds, that I rigorously followed the law, and that my termination was a direct result of reporting the wrongdoing and misuse of City funds that was evident to so many people at City Hall.”

You can read the entire news release here.

35 COMMENTS

  1. It sounds to me like the only two people alleging a violation are Ms. Humann and the anonymous caller.

    If the auditor is requesting documents about a specific employee, I think the Mayor has every right to expect to be kept in the loop and involve the city attorney if he deems it necessary. The only reason I can think of for Ms. Humann to not inform the Mayor is that she didn’t trust him to comply with the law.

    If someone was working for me and I found out they were sending documents behind my back to an outside agency because they didn’t trust me, I’d fire that person.

    Please note I am not assuming either the innocence or guilt of the person whose payroll records were requested. We’ll find out about that in due time.

  2. Quoted from press release: “The general concern expressed by the other employees was that the new employee was drawing a substantial salary but was rarely present at work and had not submitted appropriate documentation supporting the payroll expense, and was given unearned vacation time and sick leave by the Mayor in contravention of existing City policies.”

    (1) Why would any other employee have access to Ms. Cole’s salary information and any other information related her vacation/sick time?

    (2) Why would there be, what appears to be, general discussion among the employees about Ms. Cole’s employment status.

    In my experience in the corporate and legal world, these bits of information are confidential. Personally, this bit of information sounds like the usual water cooler gossip that has gone too far.

  3. Great questions, Priya. I personally hope this turns into a lawsuit, assuming that Lighthouse Law will be required to defend it at no additional expense to the city. If a lawsuit is filed, the discovery process should get us answers to those questions.

  4. Thanks for the reminder, Ron. I had forgotten about that one.

    Beyond controls that limit who can access sensitive information, I think there’s an even more important feature the payroll system should have. Whenever anybody accesses sensitive information, it should record who accessed it and when they did it. That would be extraordinarily valuable in investigating allegations of abuse.

  5. Right on point, Joe. Further, even if that information is available, why the gossip? And, why would Humann be participating in the gossip. I would assume, as HR Director, her role would be to quash gossip of that nature.

  6. Priya I dissagree, if someone is getting a nice salary and isn’t showing up for work people will complain.. So now this ms Cole isn’t working and still getting paid, I guess thats a good deal for her, I think I would let a judge decide that . But I guess theres a lot of fixed dogs working for the city.

  7. Complaining to HR that someone isn’t showing up is legit, even if there are good reasons such as working off premises. But Ms. Humann claims that there was a general concern Ms. Cole had not filed the proper documentation. How would they know that?

  8. I think the Mayor should make the following offer to Ms. Cole. An investigator is hired. If Ms. Cole is found innocent of wrongdoing, and the Mayor is not, he pays for the investigation. Vice-versa and she pays. Neither innocent , they split the cost. Both innocent and the City pays.

    In any case, the results are released to the public with legitimately private information redacted.

  9. Here’s what I meant to say:

    I think the Mayor should make the following offer to Ms. Humann. An investigator is hired. If Ms. Humann is found innocent of wrongdoing, and the Mayor is not, he pays for the investigation. Vice-versa and she pays. Neither innocent , they split the cost. Both innocent and the City pays.

    In any case, the results are released to the public with legitimately private information redacted.

  10. Ron B, comment #10

    You obviously know a lot more about tracking data access than I do. It does seem to me that payroll data deserves as much protection as medical data. It’s a shame that the law does not require that.

  11. In the two companies I worked for, the HR department developed personnel policies that were approved by the company’s officer group. It was then the duty of each department manager to enforce those policies.

  12. Gossip implies rumor and hearsay. If there was a problem, it should have been reported to the proper authority. No City employee should have been discussing it. It was Humann’s job to stop gossip about other employees.

  13. So if it is not rumor or hearsay and someone is stealing from the city, what should have been done? Hope your knee is better.

  14. Priya:

    It is everyone’s duty to stop gossip about other employees, but it’s an impossible objective. It can be reduced, but not eliminated. The best that can be hoped for is to make a good faith effort.

  15. It is interesting to me that most of you think the payroll records are private. The City is a governmental agency and thus subject to public disclosure laws. Just about anybody can get the information with a simple public disclosure request made properly.
    Not only that, all of the wages are published with job openings. There are no secrets, usually, about the wages paid to public employees.
    Can’t say anything about people’s schedules, however.

  16. “If there was a problem, it should have been reported to the proper authority.”

    Apparently it was since the SAO has a hotline for all such concerns from citizens, which include local government employees. There is also a specific RCW that requires reporting these kinds of suspicions – 43.09.185.

  17. Right on Paul! I don’t understand why some writers (retired business employees) insist that Edmonds should be run like a business. It is not, it is a government where transparency and fairness are supposed to reign. The salaries of anyone working for the US government from the President to the new soldier and everyone in between are readily available, as it should be. There are no secrets in good government,. The best leadership for Edmonds would be to have someone with a good financial acumen who understands how an open government functions. I don’t see that happening soon unless a schooled and trained city manager was hired to run the city’s affairs properly.

  18. Right on Betty!

    Maybe we will begin to learn about the advantages of a Council/Manager form of operation with Lynnwood’s ballot measure. It seems to be working well in Montlake Terrace and Mill Creek. And if it cools down things in Lynnwood it might be well for our Council to consider a ballot measure it in the near term. It would also cool off continued political attempts to raise downtown building for longer than the next election.

  19. Thanks Paul, that is what I meant but obviously did not express very well. In my view any public institution or government should be run with as much efficiency and professionalism as if it were a private company or business with the huge difference being that a private business may be and is in essence ‘private” when any “public” government needs to be open to the the public, We the people…. Edmonds has as far as I can tell in the past 9 years that I have lived there been run like a private business without much transparency and actually with definite nastiness towards the few citizens who dared question issues or decisions. Salary scales should be in the open for all to see and readily available, as should be any policies, etc… Nothing should be hidden. I fervently hope that these bad times will usher a new era of cooperation between the leadership and the citizens. A change for the better for all.

  20. Betty, Salary scales are open to the public if you go to the cities web sight. I always found the city to be quite open and freindly to questions as long as I treated them with the same respect that I expected from them. Confrintation leads to confrintation

  21. Don,

    I have not been able to find salary scales on the city’s website. Please post a link to the salary scales, and please let us know how you found them. In other words, what search words did you use to find the link? Or did you find it some other way?

    Although information is available on the site, much of it is often not easy to find. I look forward to the link, and thanks in advance for posting it.

  22. Returning to the Press Release issued October 13, 2011 by Attorney Cliff Freed, it states that Ms. Humann “filed a written complaint today with Edmonds mayor Mike Cooper alleging she was wrongfully terminated . . .”

    The link to the entire press release is in Teresa’s article above.

    Hence, we have evidence the complaint was filed which required the City to respond to the charge of retaliatory action and request for relief within 30 days, per RCW 42.41.040(3). The City’s response was due no later than November 12, 2011.

    I wonder what the City’s response was and I wonder what happened next?

    This is all very hard to follow. Hopefully the citizen’s will be provided clarity soon.

  23. Ken,
    What you have presented points to the case having been settled before getting to the Administrative Law Judge, and the records may have been sealed. Just my best guess, but since none of the promised information about the “investigation” ordered by Cooper, nor the Administrative Law Judge’s ruling, nor the SAO report on the audit of the time cards it seems that may be the case.
    Just my impression, but it does explain why there is nothing being made public even though it was promised during the election.

  24. Hi Diane,

    You very well might be correct . . . this reinstatement announcement may very well be related to a settlement agreement of some type. The City should know that interested citizens are going to guess and speculate in an effort to try and understand what is going on when details are omitted. It doesn’t need to be this way,

    I think an opportunity to display improved transparency has been missed here. In my opinion, it is not in the City’s best interest to provide such little detail about something that received significant news coverage and was confusing to many citizens.

    Let’s hope a lesson is learned and more details will be provided in the future.

    I still hold out hope for improved transparency and a more open government.

  25. Ken,
    Ms Cole has filed a claim ( see the agenda for Council Meeting on Tuesday) which probably is prepratory to filing a lawsuit. This may explain some of the lack of transparency in the reporting of the time card audit, the “hostile workplace” investigation. It is entirely possible that Ms Humann case was settled as well. Determining what is/should be public given the litigation (s) pending is becomes murky.

  26. It looks like we all get a Holiday present. Diane T is back and her voice has been missed. She is careful with her analysis and articulate in her views. Look forward to more of your comments.

  27. Contributing to the lack of transparency over the past two years has been the sharp increase in the time spent in executive sessions. During 2010/2011 there will have been 45 hours spent in these meetings, assuming that the Dec.20th meeting runs the scheduled one hour. In a comparable two-year period, 2006/2007 when labor negotiations were also conducted, there were a little less than 17 hours spent in executive sessions.

  28. According to the Everett Herald, Ms Cole has filed suit against the City. The article has a link to the Summons and Complaint. The pleadings are, unless I am mistaken, public record. There is a great deal of transparency in lawsuits. Because of the pending litigation, it is easy to understand why our elects have been quiet about the matter.
    As the discovery process proceeds, I suspect we will learn much ( probably more than we want to know ) about the facts of the situation.

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