Woman alleging harassment said she’d had enough; Cooper calls it ‘a vendetta’
The woman at the center of a firestorm over Mayor Mike Cooper’s firing of City of Edmonds Human Resources Director Debi Humann says she knew that going public with her allegations of a “hostile work environment” might hurt Cooper’s re-election chances, but that she could no longer tolerate the harassment she was experiencing on the job.
Kim Cole, Cooper’s senior executive assistant who also is in her first term on the Lynnwood City Council, is on paid administrative leave while her allegations are being investigated. During a recent two-hour interview with My Edmonds News, she said that she has been fighting a multi-year battle against rumors that she was overpaid employee who never showed up for work, starting shortly after she began her job as Cooper’s legislative aide while he served on the Snohomish County Council. And Cole said those allegations followed her to the City of Edmonds, after Cooper asked her to serve as his executive assistant following his appointment as mayor in July 2010.
Cole also talked about her personal battle with Attention Deficit Disorder, which was diagnosed shortly after she started working for the County Council but she believes that she had been suffering from for many years before that. “It explained a lot,” the 32-year-old Cole said of the diagnosis, noting that she struggled to keep her focus in high school but “I got frustrated and dropped out.” She earned her GED immediately after that, at age 16, and started on a path that became very familiar through her life. She put herself through school – she has a business degree from the University of Phoenix and just graduated from Seattle University School of Law – while doing volunteer work that led her into politics, along with paid work to support herself and eventually – as a single mother – her son, now age 7.
Cole said that rumors started about her work performance shortly after Cooper took office at the county in 2008, and intensified later in the year due to a falling out between Cooper and Pat Thompson, Deputy Director of the Washington State Council of City and County Employees union, which represents the majority of Snohomish County employees. She said she couldn’t say why Thompson chose to focus on her – “I never figured that out” — but acknowledged that her pay and her flexible work schedule were issues for fellow employees, and that Thompson and others were unhappy about Cooper’s management of her time and her salary.
Thompson said in a phone interview that “there isn’t validity” to Cole’s belief that she was singled out in retaliation for bad blood between him and Cooper. Cole was hired “at a time when the (Snohomish County) Council was asking the union for concessions” due to economic conditions, Thompson recalled. “We were having some heated discussions with the council about the concept of shared sacrifice. When you’re in those discussions and it’s pretty common knowledge that you have an individual who is hired at the top of her step but doesn’t come to work, that’s an issue.”
In a statement released to My Edmonds News Monday, Cooper, however, vehemently disagreed with Thompson’s assessment, stating that Thompson had waged a “personal vendetta” against him and Cole.
“In 2008, Mr. Thompson asked me to be the lone NO vote on a mediated contract for the Clerks union and I refused, telling him that the agreement was fair to workers,” Cooper said. “The county council adopted the contract 5-0. It was after that that he began relentless personal and political attacks on me and Ms. Cole.”
“It is also important to note that not being your chair in doesn’t mean you are not working for the city or the county,” Cooper said. “Edmonds City policy allows alternative schedules such as flex hours, subject to the approval of the mayor.”
“No county elected official attempted to talk me out of hiring Ms. Cole at top step,” Cooper added. “When I told Mr. Thompson of my plans he supported them.” You can read the complete statement from Cooper here.
According to an April 12, 2010 memo from then-Snohomish County Council Chair Dave Gossett, obtained through a My Edmonds News public records request, Gossett had “increasing concerns over Ms. Cole’s attendance at work.” Gossett noted he had set up a meeting April 6, 2010 with Council Chief of Staff Marcia Isenberg and Chief Civil Prosecuting Attorney Deputy Jason Cummings to discuss “what authority the Council might have over a single member’s aide,” but noted that since aides are “supervised, hired, and fired by the Councilmember from the district the Council has no or little direct control.”
In the memo, Gossett wrote that he also requested and received documents from the County’s Department of Information Services indicating that Cole had not been logging into the County’s Citrix system, which allows employees to work remotely. Gossett said he shared that information with Cooper when discussing Cole’s attendance issues during a meeting between the two of them on April 15, 2010, but Cooper assured him that Cole was indeed “working for him daily but that he did not want her spending all her time in the office.”
Cooper indicated that Cole “was calling him, meeting with him, working from home, working in the district on projects he had told her to work on,” Gossett wrote. When Gossett asked how she was responding to emails when “she had never logged onto Citrix,” Cooper responded that Cole was not using Citrix because “the system was infected and had infected her home system as well,” and used her Blackberry instead.
“I indicated that it would be helpful if she (Cole) told the front desk where she was going when she left and was told that was between the Councilmember and his aide,” Gossett wrote. “I stressed that I felt this was a problem and that he and she should address it.”
Cole said it was well known that the County’s Information Services Department was having trouble with its systems and that she chose to bypass the Citrix system for that reason. In addition to using her Blackberry, she also logged in to her email using a county-issued air card that Cooper gave her. (According to this January 2010 story from our online news partner, The Seattle Times, Snohomish County Councilmembers expressed concern “about the security of the county’s e-mail.”)
When she started as Cooper’s County Council legislative aide, Cole was brought in at the top of the pay range, at $79,000 a year. “To me, it was a huge amount – more than I had ever made,” Cole said. However, she added that all county council legislative aides were hired within the same pay band and could start at any place within that range, at their supervisor’s discretion.
And although some questioned whether her experience justified her salary, Cole said she believes that her business degree, law school studies and a decade of work for political candidates and campaigns, plus her employment in the health care field, qualified her for more pay. In fact, she said, three of the five aides working for councilmembers at the time she was at the county were at the top of the pay band, including one who had approximately the same amount of experience as Cole.
Thompson said that Cooper’s decision to hire Cole at the top salary step “caused concern” and that other elected officials attempted to talk him out of it. It was common knowledge that Cole was going to law school while serving as Cooper’s aide, and “it appeared that that was taking precedence over her work at the county,” Thompson said.
Cole admits that she always has a lot on plate, juggling employment, school, politics and – for the last several years – motherhood. She restarted the 2006 Snohomish County Young Democrats group in 2006, and in 2007 was elected a Public Hospital District 2 Commissioner. In November 2009, while working as Cooper’s County Council legislative aide, she was elected to the Lynnwood City Council.
“It’s just how it’s been for me,” Cole said. “I don’t have family around here, my mom is not well, so it’s not a supportive system. I’m used to working and doing multiple things.”
Thompson said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the Cole-Cooper controversy in Edmonds. “Given the problems that this created in Snohomish County, I’m amazed that they didn’t do something to correct it,” Thompson said. “I’m not aware of anyone (at the county) who felt the situation made sense. The only persons that were defending it, were Mike and Kim.”
Thompson also said that his union often works with employees requesting special accommodations for disabilities recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes ADD, and that Cole’s request for accommodation “would have to be on record with the County.” A public records request from My Edmonds News to the county’s human resources department indicated that no such request was filed, but Cole said that she did make a request to her supervisor – Cooper – for such accommodation.
“All communication surrounding my disability…was provided directly to my supervisor, the only requirement of me as an employee under the law,” Cole said. “I personally never spoke to HR about my disability that was diagnosed two months after the start of my employment. Whatever process is required of supervisors would fall to Mike Cooper.”
Cole admitted she was often away from her office at the county but said that’s because Cooper relied on her to be out in the field conducting research on his behalf. Those requirements intensified in summer 2009, when Cooper – at that time serving as County Council Chair – was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Cole had already filed to run for the Lynnwood City Council and was still working for the hospital commission, and now was also juggling the extra workload generated when Cooper was receiving chemotherapy and other medical treatments for his cancer.
“When cancer hit, he was sick, and I was just doing the best I could at that point,” Cole said. “Some of the biggest issues that he took up while he was on the council, ended up turning out well, and I was proud of my work.”
In addition, Cole said her ADD – diagnosed in early 2008 – made it difficult for her to be in the office when she was required to focus on the large volume of research and reading that Cooper asked her to do, including work on issues ranging from mobile home park zoning to a county fireworks ban to bikini barista stands.
“It is a situation (with ADD) where your brain gets interrupted,” Cole said. “You have to be really proactive to succeed.” As a result, Cole said she would often work from home and reply to emails using her county-issued Blackberry.
“There were a lot of times at the county where he (Cooper) would let me use his office and as long as we closed the door, have quiet time,” Cole said. “If the phone rings and I’m in the middle of reading something I’m expected to retain and formulate a thought to give to him, I’d have to start over.”
When Cole and Cooper came to Edmonds, Cole said they found a “close-knit culture” of employees who had been working together for several years under former Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson. “We’d shut the door and people would open the door in Edmonds,” she said. “It didn’t create a very good atmosphere.”
Cole said that right after she started as Cooper’s executive assistant, then-Human Resources Director Debi Humann asked questions about her work schedule, although “it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. But it was enough that I was aware that some of those things had preceded me.” Cole said that she was immediately upfront with Humann, both about her ADD diagnosis and her efforts to juggle her disability and multiple County Council priorities while assisting Cooper during his cancer treatment.
When contacted by My Edmonds News for comment, Humann said the first time she learned of Cole’s disability “is when I read about it in the newspapers following my termination.” Shortly after Cooper hired Cole, Humann said she received calls from “several newspapers” regarding Cole’s job duties and how that related to her work as a member of the Lynnwood City Council. Questions were also asked about Cole’s hours in light of her concurrent position as a Lynnwood City Councilmember and rumors of attendance issues at the county, Humann said, but she didn’t comment; instead, she suggested that the reporters follow up with Cole and Cooper directly.
Cooper said via email Monday morning that he won’t comment regarding Cole’s ADD accommodations either at county or the city, “because it is an issue related to the pending litigation involving both Ms. Cole and Ms. Humann. I am confident that when all of the investigations are complete the truth will demonstrate this is a politically motivated vendetta.”
According to Cole, she and Cooper were careful to review city policies to ensure that she could work a flextime schedule while in Edmonds and also determined that it was up to Cooper to oversee her assignments and her time, given she was “a confidential exempt employee serving at the direction of the Mayor.” Cole said that Cooper also determined her Edmonds salary, which was toward the top of the range at $79,000.
Cole said that she was in the office regularly, “40 hours a week, regularly 9:30-6:30 and beyond,” but she did have appointments three times a week for ADD treatment. During those appointment days, Cole said, she would make up the hours by skipping lunch, working later or working weekends.
As time went on in Edmonds, Cole said, “there were specific little happenings that made me kind of certain that people were doing their best to keep track of me.” In early February 2011, Cole said that Humann called a meeting with Cooper and Economic Development/Community Services Director Stephen Clifton to discuss Cole’s schedule. “We have incredibly thin walls,” Cole said, “and I can hear some of it because they are being very heated.”
Cole said that she became increasingly frustrated by Cooper’s lack of responsiveness to her complaints about perceived harassment from Humann and other employees, including times when Humann would make “inappropriate, demeaning” comments about her during cabinet meetings with Cooper and department heads.
“In June (2011) I told him I felt I was being harassed, targeted, singled out,” Cole said. “I…said somebody needs to look into it because I’m tired of it, it’s not going to stop, there’s no accountability for the people doing it, I feel people are watching me.” A public records request to the City of Edmonds made by My Edmonds News included emails between Cole and Cooper documenting numerous “hang up” phone calls from June through August 2011 that Cole believes were an attempt by someone to see whether she was at her desk.
She attributed Cooper’s inaction, in part, to the tough election battle that the appointed mayor is facing against former Edmonds City Councilmember Dave Earling. “He’d ask, ‘Can it wait until after the election and it’s like ‘No, it’s happening now,’” Cole recalled.
Election timing aside, Cole also noted that Cooper is “very trusting. He just counts everyone as a friend. So there was a reluctance to ever deal with these things and he didn’t.”
Cole said that things came to a head when she returned from vacation in September. In a Sept. 1, 2011 email, Cole told Cooper that Humann had sent her a blank email on her first vacation day in August 2011, “for the purposes of receiving my out of office reply, presumably for her ‘records.’
“I am requesting formally that Ms. Humann, again, be counseled about her role, scope and area of authority as a director and that this be taken seriously under advisement by you in terms of her time spent on what amounts to personal investigation of workers using her workplace resources, ongoing confidentiality issues I have had with her and the sheer volume of time both take given the backlog and staffing issues Human Resources reports to our office,” Cole wrote to Cooper. “This sort of behavior is becoming quite troubling given how targeted and harassing it is towards me personally.”
On Sept. 13, Cole said she’d had enough, and “I literally walked out.” It was then that Cooper asked her to come back and began taking “active steps” on her behalf, Cole said. On Sept. 22, Cooper fired Humann, publicly stating “I no longer had confidence in her ability to do the job and to work effectively with me.” The firing generated criticism of Cooper and a groundswell of support for Humann. It also brought to light news that the Washington State Auditor as part of its routine audit was looking at issues – submitted via “an anonymous tip” — regarding compliance with City of Edmonds payroll policy.
Many assumed that the Auditor’s Office action was directed at Cole, and she said she became increasingly distressed by the ongoing negative portrayal of her in the media. “It’s probably one of the more hurtful accusations that someone could throw at you,” Cole said. “That you don’t work or that you are trying to cheat the system. That’s the underlying thing, that I’m slacking or cheating the government.”
Cole’s ongoing concerns prompted Cooper to pursue a settlement attempt between the City and Cole, brokered by Edmonds City Councilmember DJ Wilson (who said he was acting as a private citizen) and involving both Cooper and a representative of the Lighthouse Group, which serves as the City Attorney. That settlement agreement was later voided by the City Council, which said Cooper didn’t have the authority to enter into such an agreement. It also resulted in the City Council censuring Wilson for his role in negotiating it.
Although Cole had initially resigned on Sept. 22, because the council voided the settlement agreements made with her, she is on paid administrative leave “in accordance with the City’s personnel policies pending the outcome of the investigation into complaints she had regarding workplace harassment when she resigned,” Cooper said in a news release issued Oct. 11.
Cole said that she and Cooper haven’t spoken since Sept. 22. “I don’t know if there was a massive falling out per se,” she said. “I’m disappointed. It’s been hard. I feel like for as much as he did the right thing, he was also trying to accommodate everybody else and there as really a decision point where he had to take a stand and act on something. I kind of feel like I’ve been left to deal with it, and I have a lot of years left as far as my career.”
Equally hurtful, Cole said, were rumors started at the county – and continued while she was at the City of Edmonds – that “there was something inappropriate” going on between her and Cooper. “That didn’t fly very well for people that knew me and a lot of women didn’t like that very much,” Cole said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s hurtful. He’s like a dad. “
“Mike and Crystal Cooper (Cooper’s wife) and their children and grandchildren have become like family to me,” Cole added. “That’s what’s really hard about this. I’m aware of what time it is for Mike, and I never wanted to mess up elections. It’s just that I couldn’t do it anymore. At this point, there’s not a lot left of my reputation.”
When asked if she had a response to Cole’s allegations of harassment, Humann said via email that she would not offer comment given the fact that the city has hired an independent investigator to look into the harassment claims and that the State Auditor is conducting an audit of city payroll issues. She did say, however, that “at no time did I track Ms. Cole’s hours.”
Humann said the city offers a full-service HR department staffed with only two people, and as such must handle a wide range of issues ranging from benefits and compensation to workplace injuries, recruitment and contract negotiations — “basically everything that impacts employees as well as our retirees.”
“In my role as HR Director, I did not have the time to track employee hours but it was my job to respond to complaints regarding employee issues,” Humann said.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 13 Humann filed a written complaint alleging she was wrongfully terminated from her job. In her complaint, filed in connection with the Local Government Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, Humann said she was fired in retaliation for providing documents to the Washington State Auditor that “detailed improper payroll practices.”