Updated at 10:30 p.m.
Posted at 8 a.m.
My Edmonds News is back in court today for day 11 of the Debi Humann civil trial against the City of Edmonds and former Mayor Mike Cooper.
Court is starting earlier than usual today, Thursday, so that Judge Marsha Pechman and the attorneys can sort out some issues before jurors arrive. One of the areas we’re likely to see covered is jury instructions, since Pechman said Wednesday she expects the case to go to the jury for deliberation at some point today.
Those expected to testify today include current City of Edmonds Human Resources Manager Mary Ann Hardie and Carrie Hite, who serves as the city’s very part-time (5 percent) Human Resources Reporting Director. We will continue to update throughout the day, so check back.
Updated at 9 a.m.
Prior to juror’s arrival, Judge Pechman issued two rulings. In one, she granted immunity to Cooper related to Humann’s claim that she wasn’t provided due process for a name-clearing hearing. The judge noted that once Cooper lost the mayoral election in 2011, he had no control over what happened to the name-clearing issue.
Pechman also pulled the plaintiff’s claim that Humann was denied due process because the city did not provide her with an opportunity for a name-clearing hearing. Plaintiffs had argued that the Administrative Law Judge hearing that provided Humann with a settlement for back pay dealt only with that issue, so did not offer Humann an opportunity to clear her name. However, Peckman noted that Humann’s attorney had an opportunity to raise the issue and the city didn’t do anything to prevent that.
Updated at 1 p.m.
We are now on a break for lunch. Both defense and plaintiffs have rested their case. Here’s what happened this morning:
The city’s current HR manager, Mary Ann Hardie, completed her testimony, relating that she was appointed acting HR manager when Humann was fired, and was permanently appointed to that job in April 2012.
Under questioning from the City’s defense attorney, Jayne Freeman, Hardie said that after Dave Earling became mayor in 2011, he met with all the city’s department directors and also met with her to find out how things were going. Hardie said she told Earling that she had good “synergy” with Carrie Hite, who at the time was serving as interim HR Director in addition to overseeing parks, recreation and cultural services, “and we were working very well together.” Hardie also said she told Earling that whatever decisions he made about HR, she would support. Hardie agreed with Freeman’s assertion that at no time did Mayor Earling ask about Debi Humann and whether she should be brought back.
“I did emphasize there had been a lot of positive changes and was hoping the current arrangement could continue,” Hardie said.
Under cross-examination by Humann attorney Beth Blooom, Hardie confirmed that before Humann was fired, she was working as an HR analyst at a salary of approximately $63,000 and now, as HR manager is making $101,000 a year.
“Is it fair to say that since Debi’s been fired you’ve gotten a pay increase of over $40,000?” Bloom asked, to which Hardie replied, “Yes.”
Much of the questioning of Hardie and of Hite, who followed Hardie on the stand, focused on how the city chose to spend its money on HR-related business and the projects it prioritized after Humann’s firing.
Both Hardie and Hite confirmed that in addition to paying Hardie an increased salary for her new duties, the city also paid Hite an additional 5 percent of her parks director salary — or about $6,000 a year — to handle HR policy issues with staff and city council. Hite did note that her pay didn’t start until spring of 2012, after the city council passed on ordinance allowing for directors to absorb additional director-level job duty at the 5-percent-of-their salary rate.
Hite confirmed that Cooper let her know on Sept. 21 of his plans to fire Humann, a move that surprised her. Cooper asked Hite to serve temporarily as HR Director and to develop a work plan for immediate issues that needed attention, with a particular focus on completing outdated job descriptions. While Hite admitted she didn’t have any direct HR management experience, she did say she was a veteran city administrator who often worked on HR issues and felt comfortable taking on the task, as long as she could bring in an HR consultant to help. That consultant, Tara Adams, came on to help with projects for a $10,000 contract that spilled into 2012; an additional $8,000 was added to her contract later so she could help with police labor negotiations, Hite said.
During that time, the city also completed a compensation study under a $35,000 consultant contract that had been approved by the city council long before Humann was fired.
Hite was asked if she has ever recommended that the HR director position be added back into the city’s budget since Humann’s firing, and Hite replied that she has not. Instead, the HR department initiated a series of cost-saving measures — from a voluntary retirement initiative to a restructuring of health and retirement benefits to more aggressive oversight of state Department of Labor and Industries claims — that has saved the city nearly $1 million.
Much of the oversight for those projects is administrative in nature, and as such “it didn’t make sense to hire a director to do that,” Hite said.
“It’s working well,” Hite said of the restructured department.
Prior to lunch, Debi Humann’s attorney brought her back to the stand to respond to testimony earlier from Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas. .Humann said it was not true that after she was fired, she told Fraley-Monillas, who is her neighbor, that she planned to “take Mayor Cooper’s house.”
“I didn’t make that statement,” Humann said. “It was not on my mind. What I wanted was my job back.”
Updated at 4:30 p.m.
Closing arguments have been completed and the case has now gone to the jury. Jurors have been dismissed for the day and will start their deliberations at 9 a.m. Friday. We will have a summary on closing arguments later today.
Updated at 10:30 p.m.
Before closing arguments, the judge recapped for the jury its instructions, including a summary of the four charges being made by plaintiff Humann:
1) Wrongful termination by the City of Edmonds on Sept. 22, 2011, because she reported corruption or misuse of public funds to then-Mayor Mike Cooper and/or the state auditor
2) Wrongful termination by the City of Edmonds on Dec. 31, 2011, for filing an Oct. 12 whistle blower complaint alleging she was wrongfully terminated from her job.
3) First Amendment retaliation by the City of Edmonds against Humann for filing the Oct. 12 whistle blower complaint and/or making related statements to the press.
4) Defamation by Mike Cooper and the City of Edmonds based upon statements Cooper made following Humann’s termination.
Beth Bloom gave the closing argument for plaintiff Humann, painting this case — as she did during opening arguments — that this trial focuses on “the risk and dangers about speaking up against those in authority.”
Humann, Bloom said, “stood up for what was right and she paid a terrible price” — not only was she fired by Cooper, she was attacked “repeatedly” in the press, losing not only her job but her reputation in the community and her ability to find work in the human resources field.
What happened to Humann was similar to a game of dominoes, Bloom told jurors. The first domino was Cooper firing Humann, followed by the elimination of her position as a cost-cutting measure, “since the job was empty.”
“If not for the actions of Mike cooper setting off this chain reaction, Debi would still be in the HR job today,” Bloom said.
Cooper was fiercely loyal to his executive assistant Kim Cole, Bloom said. “She was like a family member to him and he did a great number of things to help her along. He was effectively blind to what other people saw,” including her constant absence from the office and inappropriate use of vacation time and sick leave. In addition, Cooper “desperately” wanted to be elected mayor “and it led him to do some awful, terrible things to Debi,” she added.
When newly-elected Mayor Dave Earling rehired Humann, only to lay her off two weeks later because the city council had eliminated her position – it was a strategy to silence Humann, said Bloom, who called the action “a charade.”
Bloom asked the jury to consider awarding Humann damages of just over $2 million, including lost past and future wages, defamation, destruction of her reputation and emotional distress.
In closing arguments for the City of Edmonds, attorney Jayne Freeman said the case is simply “about an employee who disagreed with employment decisions made at the City of Edmonds,” and about a series of changes that some long-time employees didn’t like.
“You’ve heard a lot of evidence about decisions that were made” by former Mayor Cooper, current Mayor Earling and others, Freeman told the jurors, but “one thing you are not asked to decide…is whether you agree with the employment decision or whether they were the best or if you would have made a different decision.”
Plaintiff Humann has alleged that decisions were made “for an illegal reason,” which the plaintiff assumed was true, “and she has asked you to assume that with her,” Freeman said.
While Humann’s attorneys have attempted to frame this this as “a case about power and privilege,” Freeman said, in actuality “his is a case about the city of Edmonds. This is not the center of the universe. It’s a small town in the state of Washington.”
Freeman asked the jurors to “look at credibility of Ms. Humann,” including her dramatic testimony about people yelling and crying as she was leaving City Hall after she was fired, which was later contradicted as untrue by her employee at the time, Mary Ann Hardie, and City Attorney Sharon Cates.
Freeman showed the jurors a video clip of Cooper during the council meeting in which Humann’s job was eliminated, to show that Humann’s claim that Cooper “looked up and gave her a smile, kind of like ‘I gotcha,'” didn’t occur.
As for Cole, Freeman said that Cooper didn’t dispute that Cole wasn’t at her desk but she noted that how and where Cole worked was his decision to make, as her supervisor.” Cooper was a career firefighter, “a man of action who not used to having people doing things for him,” Freeman said. “The fact that other employees didn’t want to have him work that way doesn’t mean he’s not using his executive assistant as he wants to.”
Cooper’s attorney John Kugler specifically addressed Humann’s personal claim against Cooper for defamation, reminding the jurors that on this claim there is a special burden of proof “of clear and convincing evidence,” because “we live in America. There is a freedom of speech.”
Cooper made “a very short statement” as to why he decided to fire Humann, Kugler said. “That was his opinion and he believed it. He thought there needed to be a change.”
The mayor has the right to be able to fire department heads who aren’t supporting him, and there is “no room for infighting or disagreement of decisions,” Kugler added.”If the department directors are constantly questioning decisions, the mayor can’t function,” he said.
Kugler told jurors that “there is no evidence of any loss of Ms. Humann’s reputation due to Cooper’s statement,” and “no connection between lack of job offers and the press out of Edmonds and that it had anything to do with lack of job offers.”
Bloom, offered the chance for a brief rebuttal, asked the jurors during their deliberations to “bring one thing with you, and that’s your common sense. People know how to protect those that they like and harm those that they don’t like.”
— Reported by Teresa Wippel