More than one political candidate has accused the Edmonds City Council and mayor in recent weeks of engaging in too much drama, and Tuesday night’s meeting didn’t disappoint — as the council voted following a lengthy executive session to censure Councilmember DJ Wilson for his role in trying to arrange a settlement for Mayor Mike Cooper’s executive assistant, Kim Cole.
Before the Council made its decision, there were attempts by Cooper, City Council President Strom Peterson and Council Vice President Lora Petso to have the council delay the censure vote in order to complete fact finding on Wilson’s charges — prepared by Wilson’s attorney Jim Johanson — stating that the council legally must grant Wilson a public hearing prior to taking a vote. In a letter to Peterson, that was hand-delivered to councilmembers, Johanson said that by voting to censure Tuesday night, the council would be violating seven state laws, four of which are criminal violations and three of those gross misdemeanors punishable with jail time and fines.
When asked his legal opinion of Johanson’s claims, City Attorney Jeff Taraday told councilmembers “there is no state law that requires a particular kind of hearing,” although he did say that it could be argued Wilson has the right to correct any factual errors in the censure resolution. However, Wilson’s threats convinced Petso, also an attorney, to leave the room before the vote was taken, stating she didn’t want to risk the possibility of breaking the law.
The resolution, read aloud by Councilmember Steve Bernheim, stated the council was censuring Wilson for 1) attempting to mediate a personnel dispute between the City of Edmonds and a City employee with whom he had a personal, political and professional relationship, 2) without Council delegation mediating a contract obligating the City of Edmonds to pay his personal, political and professional colleague Kimberly Cole $65,000 and a year of health insurance, and 3) misleading the residents of Edmonds by concealing his role in the matter.” The final vote for censure was 5-1 with Wilson voting no and Petso absent for the vote.
Wilson, who is running for re-election, did have an opportunity to respond to the censure before the council voted, calling the motion “perhaps the most irresponsible act an irresponsible Council has taken during my entire term of office” and one that is “entirely politically motivated.” “I have done nothing wrong,” Wilson said. “In fact, this censure resolution both condemns me for disclosing my role, and for not disclosing my role. Every one of the four points made in this resolution is either factually inaccurate or factually irrelevant.”
Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said she saw no reason to hold a public hearing on the matter and instead told Wilson: “You are clearly combative, and because of that you are not using good sense.”
In a detailed memo written Oct. 2 to Mark Bucklin, attorney for the Washington Cities Insurance Authority, the liability insurance pool the city belongs to, Wilson described his role in helping to negotiate a settlement for Cole during a process that involved Sharon Cates, a Lighthouse Law Group attorney who works with Taraday, Mayor Cooper and Cole’s attorney James Spencer. That settlement was later voided by the City Council on the basis that the mayor had no authority to enter into such agreements, although Cooper said he was acting on the City Attorney’s advice in approving them in the first place.
Wilson’s attorney Johanson also wrote a letter to Taraday and Cates, stating that there was a conflict of interest in having them advise the City Council on the censure issue given their involvement in the Cole settlement issue. But the council voted 5-1 (Petso opposed and Wilson abstaining) to agree that Taraday could provide them with legal advice.
Cole is currently on paid leave pending an investigation of workplace harassment that she says occurred while she worked for the City.
Immediately after the censure vote was taken, Cooper said during mayor’s comments he was troubled that “someone who may have voted on this item tonight took an action last week by releasing confidential executive session material” to the Edmonds Beacon. “When I read the Beacon on Oct. 27, 2011, I found myself in a state of shock and disbelief,” Cooper said, “discovering a councilmember or members had openly violated RCW 42.23.070 which states, ‘No municipal officer may disclose confidential information gained by reason of the officer’s position nor may the officer otherwise use such information for his or her personal gain or benefit.’ RCW 42.23.050 goes on to state that the municipal officer who violates this statute is subject to a $500 penalty and a possible forfeiture of office. The entire council was aware that much of this information is confidential in nature and should not be released during ongoing legal discussions. Yet someone took it upon themselves to break the law and put the entire council and the city in a compromised legal position.
“Our state laws are clear on this matter, and it’s an outrage to me think that some member or members of the City Council placed themselves above the law while claiming they believe in open government,” Cooper said. “The City Council is not a subcommittee of a social club. Laws are written to allow government to function with executive session provisions being an important part of the Open Public Meetings law. This behavior is destructive to the city, destroys public confidence in the City Council and must stop. The person or persons responsible for this act owe every member of our community an apology. My hope is that they will step forward and take responsibility for their actions.
Cooper said he will be asking both the City Attorney and the Prosecuting Attorney to review the matter for potential future action.
Note: due to the late hour of this council meeting, we will be including additional information about other actions taken by the council later on Wednesday.