Report: Edmonds councilmembers’ conduct didn’t violate state, federal laws

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.

  1. In spite of the Council’s attempts to move forward, it appears Mr. Hines likes to look back and drudge up drama so let me provide you some factual issues. I am quite surprised T, you didn’t contact either myself or Mr. Plunkett.

    Last year, I was unable to reconcile the ending general fund balance with the beginning general fund balance. Three examples were provided where I could reconcile these two numbers from Cities that use Governmental Finance Officers Associations (GFOA) Methodology and proved that I was “not wrong” in supporting this type of citizen friendly and transparent accounting practices.

    When appointed, I worked on policies to codify those methods used by other cities and sanctioned by the GFOA and put in requirements for timeliness and proper labeling. In April 2010, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance and resolution that follows the cash flow method or “budget to actual of revenue and expenditures of the general fund” following guidance from Section 11.2 of the GFOA Budget Handbook. This was the crux of the investigation since these policies have yet to be followed and we are not receiving financial information in a timely manner.

    In only two of the last twelve months financial reports were obtained on time. The June Quarterly had a $735K embedded amendments that had not been approved by the City Council and the Finance Director had no right inflating the General Fund with that transfer. The September Quarterly stated that the amendment was approved by the City Council in October, so the significant “embedded amendment” inflating the General Fund, was still reported without even a foot note. I asked the question about Haines Wharf and the cost overruns. Ms. Petso asked a similar question in open session about the REET money and why it was so low. Mr. Hines responded that it was a timing issue when in fact; it was not a timing issue at all, but cost overruns. We have yet to get the final numbers and the answers to our question have now had to come from Mr. Williams and Ms. Hite.

    Edmonds is still using the “working capital approach” (current assets minus current liabilities) which is also called a “quick ratio and used by shareholders to look at liquidity. I have asked Mr. Hines to provide me any example of a city that utilizes this type of methodology as it is not transparent since the same number derived at the end of the year is used throughout the year in all reports. Municipalities’ stakeholders deserve better as our forecasting scenarios are used to develop labor strategy and levy decisions.

    So, why spend so much time on this one disagreement in methodology? In the 2009-2010 budget, Mayor Haakenson projected we would be out of money in 2012. The 2011 budget recently approved by Council shows our city will not be running into the red until 2014. As an average citizen, why should I support a levy? The sky isn’t falling this year, despite being told it was falling last year. Yes it’s true that Edmonds has had clean audits. But there’s a difference between an acceptable audit and reporting financials that average citizens can easily understand without investing large amounts of time. This brings us full circle back to having accurate and complete general fund balances that identifies actual revenue and expenditure numbers on a monthly basis compared with our budget.

    I understand that this may require changes to our financial reporting processes and that change is never easy. But I believe Edmonds’ citizen deserve and expect this financial reporting clarity. It will build the trust necessary to PASS a levy. This is why I continue to be meticulous and ask questions that may challenge the way we track and report our financial information and if a levy is to be passed, it will have to be a specialized levy such as streets. I hate to be the naysayer, but I am a realist.

  2. One can call oneself a realist, naysayer, or meticulous. In the eyes of an independent investigator your actions more than likely would have resulted in disciplinary action had they occurred between one employee and another.

    Fortunately for you as an appointed official you are not bound by the city employment policies. But does that mean it is acceptable to hide behind a technicality and not follow the expectation “to show respect for each other and the public at all times, despite individual differences?”

  3. Mr. Young, I am not going to argue with you since I am already part of your Crank Report which goes with the territory of being a public official. Both Mr. Plunkett and I have documentation via open meeting and Finance oral recordings to support our reasons for being professional. Mr. Hines walked away from me when asking questions in an open setting and has yet to answer any of my issues relating to the transparency of both the City Council Contingency Fund (asked for a reconciliation in April) to the September Quarterly which is apparently mis-stated. Mr Dines was interviewed and found no issue with my professionalism. Bottom line, an independent investigator went through pages of emails and interviewed the complainer and a minute taker and we were found innocent.

  4. I am not sure why someone who receives a W-2 from the city is NOT an employee. In my decades of experience, a W-2 recipient IS an employee. But, I guess since Congress writes themselves out of all sorts of rules governing all the other entities in the country, our council feels they can too. Hmmm…

  5. There was no intention to slight Councilembers Plunkett or Buckshnis by doing an interview with Mr. Hines. As I just communicated to both of them in an email, I am happy to conduct a Q&A interview with them as well. But that approach may miss the point. It may be time for the two councilmembers and Mr. Hines to sit down and talk out their differences so that we all can move forward?

  6. Ms. Buckshnis,

    You say you won’t argue the point and the you do.

    I do not have a crank report regarding elected officials, only those whose actions invite discussion.

    And I would disagree with your characterization as being innocent. You did not harass Mr. Hines by dint of being on the city council. Were you another employee of the city and subject to it’s code of conduct, your actions would have demanded action.

  7. If you read the report written by Attorney Chun, you may reach a different conclusion than Mr. Hines did. In particular I quote:

    “The scope of the investigation did not include the question of whether any action, comment, or communication was rude or uncivil…. Granted, 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 the Councilmembers are not employees, this investigation did not address whether there was any violation of the City’s employment policies.”

    He did not say there was any rude or uncivil behavior – only that there MAY have been. This is more than a mere “technicality”.

    If I may make an analogy: You are accused by another driver of possibly not coming to a full stop at a yield sign. There’s no accident, no harm. The judge says that since it was not a stop sign, you’re not required to come to a full stop, so there’s no need to determine whether you actually did. You’re acquitted.

    Are you getting off on a “technicality”? I say no.

    I don’t have a problem with councilmembers putting pressure on Mr. Hines to provide a transparent accounting of where our money is going. Like Teresa, I hope they all get together to move this forward. If Mr. Hines feels “uncomfortable” with the tone of the meeting, I think he should get off his high horse and do his job. We’ve wasted more than enough time and spent more than enough money on this squabble.

  8. I don’t know what exactly is going on but, I think that a good solution would be for Mr hinges and dianne b to get together and work on the numbers so both can understand what each other is doing, sounds like its miscommuncation with the numbers, Forget the emails thats a waste of time go get the numbers Hines will go over it and work it out.I know I could probably go in there myself with an open mind and get everything you wanted. You got so much money coming in and so much money going out now whats so hard about that. Forget the budget or forcast lets talk about “real numbers”

  9. I applaud Mr. Hines in having the courage to seek resolution on this issue. Unfortunately, Attorney Chun did not completely investigate behavior of the two councilpersons at issue because they are not employees. I ask the Council to draft rules of conduct for itself that can be used to a a minimum, censor councilpersons having inappropriate behavior.

  10. Mr. Hines has been an active part of a”them vs us” political tug of war situation since he was recently hired by Gary Haakenson. He now needs to learn that the public, and not himself, will decide on the continuing employment of the long serving Michael Plunkett and the energetic Diane Buckshnis. Further, his continuing employment no longer depends on the former Mayor and his fiery support.

    Our new mayor has been very patient with Mr. Hines, and this approach has been appropriate to date. However, this problem, fairly or unfairly, is now clearly in Mayor Cooper’s lap. He will soon be forced to recognize that Mr. Hines must learn to cooperate with the elected officials or leave. We cannot continue to tolerate a pouting silent contempt from Mr. Hines, who serves at the pleasure of our elected officials.

    I have followed Mr. Plunkett’s decade long and admirable career on our Council and someimes as a critic. Never have I seen anything racist from either him or Ms. Buckshnis. Any such effort in that direction is nothing more than a false issue in my opinion; and will go nowhere.

  11. Actually the staff is managed by the mayor, who is the administrator of the city. They do not serve “at the pleasure of our elected officials.” That whole separation of powers thing…

  12. Ok I wasn’t going to comment on this but now I wlll. Ordinance #3789and resolution #1226 state real clearly that the mayor and staff will provide monthly finance reports to the city council. Its the mayor and staff . The way I read it if council needs something they need to go through the mayor first have they done that sounds to me like there going through the finance director and bypassing the mayor wrong move. Dianne be real careful about accusing someone of breaking the law because Im not certain not following an ordinance the way you interpret it is breaking the law. Im not certain that breaking an ordinance is breaking the law period. If you were to call the police they would probably say this is a civil matter and we are not getting involved, so unless someone can be put in jhail and arrested Im not certain any laws are broken, Prima am I right? At anyrate everything is suppost to go through the mayor. Now Im going to give Mayor Copper some slack he walked into this mess and I think he is doing a good job. Now the former mayor signed these two things and then he quit, now how is that working, from what Im seeing not too good

  13. I never thought I would spend time responding to comments shared on these various blogs but I do feel the need to respond to Joan Bloom’s entry…so I am spending my lunch hour to send my thoughts. I believe that most people get involved in these blogs because they care deeply about their towns and want what is best for their community. That is the general principle from which I view comments and criticism. In a perfect world, it would also be valuable if facts were checked prior to going online with accusations and speculation. In these tough times, negative speculation is damaging not only to the reputation of the city employees trying to do their jobs but to the entire decision making process. Negative speculation wastes energy and derails the communication that is so important to “fixing” whatever problems the city may be experiencing. As we all know, there are always two sides (or more it seems) to every story. My intent is not to attack Ms. Bloom so I sincerely hope this is not taken to be an affront but more a vehicle to help set the record straight on the investigation (at least as far as I can talk to the subject).

    The first supposition that I would like to address is the remark that “….Mayor Cooper should have done everything possible to avoid hiring an attorney in response to Mr. Hines’ e-mail complaint to Debi Humann.” The City never takes hiring an attorney, incurring the associated costs, as well as the upheaval it generally results in with staff, lightly. Investigations are always serious business and I, as HR Director, approach them as such. In this case, while I can’t go into details, many steps were taken prior to engaging an investigator.

    The second allegation reads, “This complaint should have been handled internally by Debi Humann, under Mayor Cooper’s direction, rather than being escalated to include the hiring of the Summit Law Group to investigate the complaint.” The City of Edmonds HR Department consists of two full time employees to support a city of approximately 210 employees, all retired individuals, and, of course, our citizens. It was decided long ago that when allegations come forward, due to our staffing levels, they are investigated by an outside firm. This is not something that was unique to this particular investigation but has been long standing policy. In addition to the staffing difficulties, I, as HR Director, know all employees and, in this case, also have a relationship with Council. While I certainly have the training to perform professional and effective investigations, any investigation done by me would likely place the city in an indefensible position as either side, depending upon the outcome of the investigation, could claim bias. Having an outside investigator perform the investigation prevents these types of allegations. Again, this is not new with this most recent investigation. All investigations must not only have the appearance of fairness but must be fair. Since I know all employees, investigations are done by an outside firm to avoid any appearance of unfairness and bias.

    The third supposition includes, “In my opinion, Mr. Hines, Council members Plunkett and Buckshnis, and the taxpayers (approximately $25,000?) in legal fees have been done an enormous disservice by Mayor Cooper in not handling this complaint internally.” I believe I discussed why we do not do these investigations internally (staffing and defensibility), but I further need to state that, to the best of my understanding, this investigation was handled by WCIA, our risk manager, therefore no costs were incurred by the City.

    Again, I think there are enough problems to go around in these tough times and I believe we have some very good minds in the community to help solve them. So much energy seems to be wasted however in either making comments not backed up by fact or by others feeling the need to “set the record straight.” I do not have all the answers but I personally would appreciate a phone call to “fact check” before comments are made in a public forum that are read by my friends, co-workers, and family members.

    Debi Humann, SPHR
    HR Director/Edmonds resident for 45 years

  14. I would like the opportunity to add one more piece of information to my previous comments. My statement that the investigation was handled by WCIA therefore no costs were incurred by the City is accurate on its face. The investigation did not cost the city anything since WCIA absorbed the costs. However, it has been pointed out that the City did incur approximately $8,136 in associated legal fees due to the investigation.

  15. Ms. Humann points out that certain citizens do not always have the full story when they express their opinions. And she takes great pride in her special knowledge of current city affairs, and finally after many words informed us ignorant ones that the investigation did not cost $25,000. That is good news and I thank her for sharing it with us. So she has provided a bit of transparency and thats good. We need more of that from our city employees.

    However I wonder if it was necessary to denigrate a citizen in so informing the public of the fact that the cost of the investigation was covered by a policy. Does it really promote good relationships among the citizens of Edmonds to attempt to “put them down” in this manner? I think not.

  16. I will be interesting to see what the decision of the Lynnwood City Council is tonight. Mr. Hines may not be our Financial Director after their vote. I would like to say that I have never had a problem talking with Mr. Hines and have met with him in his office. All I had to do is send him a request to meet.

    I just wonder who the next person to leave or asked to leave will be. We seem to spend a lot of time looking for and confirming new Directors and Law firms.

    Just remember that there are over 40,000 people living in Edmonds. There are something like 20 people who comment on what is writen writen on My Edmonds News. It would be nice to hear from some of the others. The most important things is “What is best for Edmonds”. Some times we all have to set aside our EGO’S and work together.

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