Debi Humann trial Day 9, Monday 11/10

The trial is taking place at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle. (Photo by Larry Vogel)
The trial is taking place at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Updated 7:00 pm

My Edmonds News is back in court today for day 9 of the Debi Humann civil trial. Potential witnesses on deck for today include Sharon Cates and Jeff Taraday from the Lighthouse Law Group (City Attorneys for Edmonds), Edmonds HR manager Mary Ann Hardie, and current City Councilmembers Lora Petso, Diane Buckshnis and Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, and former Councilmember Steve Bernheim.

11 am update:

Court opened today with Debi Humann back on the stand responding to questions from John Kugler, attorney for Mike Cooper. In response to his questions regarding her financial condition at the time of her termination, Humann testified that upon her firing by Cooper she received approximately $26K in accrued vacation and sick leave.

Upon redirect by Beth Bloom, attorney for the plaintiff, Humann testified as to her belief that she was fired for “reporting improper government activities” and cooperating with the state auditor. She further testified that she was “afraid” because of being told by the auditor that she was required to participate and that she would be subject to “serious legal ramifications” if she didn’t.

This concluded the case for the plaintiff.

The defense team for the city of Edmonds called former Councilmember Steve Bernheim as their first witness.

Bernheim testified that the fall of 2011 was a “very tough time” financially for Edmonds, and to his desire to carefully review the budget for potential cuts.

Under questioning about the November 2011 vote by Council to cut funding for the HR Director job from the budget, Bernheim testified that he had “no prior knowledge” that this proposal was coming, but that when Councilmember Plunkett introduced the motion he immediately saw the merit in it as a way to cut costs, and moved to second the motion.

He testified that his support for eliminating the HR Director job from the budget was grounded in his desire to cut costs, and had “nothing whatever to do with” Humann’s termination, speaking up in the press, whistleblower complaint or anything else to do with Ms. Humann. He did allow however that he was aware that Ms. Humann would have more difficultly getting her job back if the HR Director job were eliminated. But he remained adamant that he “was not trying to keep her from getting her job back, I was trying to save the city money.”

Under cross examination by the plaintiff’s attorney, Bernheim was shown a series of city council executive session agendas and attendance records from October and November 2011 at which Ms. Humann’s termination and related issues were discussed, in an attempt to establish that he was aware of the situation with Ms. Humann at the time of the council budget discussions.

The plaintiff’s team brought several emails into evidence in an attempt to further establish that Bernheim was aware of Humann’s situation, including one requesting a copy of the report on the investigation into Humann’s wrongful termination claim. Bernheim testified that he has “no recollection” of making this request.

Other emails between Bernheim and councilmember Plunkett were also introduced that implied they had communicated on this topic, one of which sent by Bernheim had the subject line “Oh the Humannity.” When asked if this was a reference to Ms. Humann, Bernheim responded, “Yes, I’m always making puns.”

After the mid morning break defense called current councilmember Lora Petso. She was asked many of the same questions put to Bernheim. Unlike Bernheim, Petso testified that she did not feel that eliminating the HR director position would make it more difficult for Humann to be reinstated, maintaining instead that the new mayor had discretion to request that this be added back into the budget.

Updated 3:00 pm

The defense next returned to Kim Cole’s video deposition.

Cole testified that she was still attending law school at Seattle University in the fall of 2010 when she began working for the CIty of Edmonds. At that time she was enrolled in two night classes that met after normal working hours. She further testified that while she studied for the bar exam during her tenure with the City of Edmonds, she never took the exam.

She described her duties for Mayor Cooper as including writing legislation, working with constituents, speech writing, research, and general administrative duties. When this work called for extensive reading or other activities that required uninterrupted concentration she would often go to a vacant office, the library, or some other quiet location, all with the knowledge and approval of Mayor Cooper. She testified that she was never questioned directly by Ms. Humann about her whereabouts, and heard no mention from anyone about rumors of an inappropriate relationship between her and Cooper.

She described being diagnosed with ADD in 2008 while she was Cooper’s legislative aid at the county council. She shared this information with Cooper “immediately” and testified that he was aware of how this affected her work and was able to provide appropriate accommodations. When she took the job with the City of Edmonds these accommodations continued. In addition, she said that she and Cooper agreed to keep her ADD confidential.

Cole went on to say that Humann never asked her directly about her hours and absences from the office, but did speak with Cooper about these topics on “several occasions.”

Cole also referenced her visit to Florida in August 2011 to spend time with her father who had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and that she and Cooper agreed that she could use some sick leave to cover this. She testified that while in Florida she did some work for the city, primarily administrative in nature.

The defense next called Sharon Cates, an attorney with the LIghthouse Law Group which holds the contract to act as City Attorney for the City of Edmonds.

While not the principal attorney functioning as Edmonds City Attorney (that is her colleague at Lighthouse, Jeff Taraday), Cates devotes at least one day per week to Edmonds primarily assisting with employment law.

She testified that while Humann was initially unhappy with the Lighthouse group when they first got the contract in March 2011, it did not take long for them to develop “a good working relationship.” Cates testified that she met with Humann weekly to speak about HR issues, and that these meetings would often become “chatty and gossipy.”

Cates went on to testify that the subject of Kim Cole’s hours and attendance came up on “several occasions,” and that Humann expressed concern that Cole was “studying for the bar exam and wearing headphones” while at her desk rather than working on city business.

Cates also testified that Humann had expressed to her that she thought there was “something fishy” about the relationship between Cooper and Cole, and that she had the impression that Humann suspected that there might be something sexual between the two.

She testified that she was present at the meeting where Humann was terminated. She could tell that Humann was “angry and upset.” She accompanied Humann to her office while she cleaned out her personal items, and rode the elevator down to her car with her, Stephen Clifton and Mary Ann Hardie. She specifically disagreed with Humann’s earlier testimony that other city employees were present and expressed anger and frustration to Cates regarding Humann’s termination, and that Humann did not give her a hug at the car as Humann had also testified earlier.

Updated 7 pm:.

The defense next called Edmonds City Councilmember Diane Buckshnis.

Under questioning by Jayne Freeman, attorney for the City of Edmonds, Buckshnis’ testmony began by relating the City Council meeting of November 22, 2011 at which the budget amendment to eliminate the HR Director position was introduced, discussed and passed.  Buckshnis characterized this as one of several budget items that were discussed.

Her testimony reflected that of other councilmembers in that she maintained there had been no prior discussion among councilmembers of eliminating the HR Director position, and that discussion only began when Councilmember Plunkett introduced the amendment that evening.  She expressed her opinion that the proposal was not in retaliation for Humann’s whistleblower complaint, her statements to the news media regarding her termination, or anything else to do with Humann.  Likewise that her vote in favor of the amendment had nothing to do with Humann or her situation. “It was all about numbers,” she said.  “Our levy requests bombed with voters.  It was all about money and moving forward.”

The next defense witness was Edmonds City Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas.

Asked about her vote in favor of eliminating the HR Director position, Fraley-Monillas echoed Buckshnis and the other councilmembers who have testified. She maintained it was strictly budgetary and that her vote had nothing to do with Debi Humann, her termination by Mayor Cooper, her whistleblower complaint, or her suit to get her job back.

Fraley-Monillas testified that she and Humann have known each other and been next door neighbors for “30 years.”  Over the years the two had talked “over the backyard fence” and came to know each other quite well.  Asked if she knew how Humann got the director’s job, Fraley-Monillas testified that Humann told her that she made it clear to then-mayor Haakenson that she was looking for other positions that would “pay her commensurate to what she was doing” for the City of Edmonds, in apparent contradiction of Humann’s earlier testimony that she had never asked Haakenson for the director position.

She also testified that she and Humann had discussed Kim Cole before Cole came to work at the City of Edmonds, as Fraley-Monillas was aware of “workplace issues” involving Cole when she worked as Cooper’s legislative aid for the county.

After Cole joined the City of Edmonds this continued and other employees became involved..  According to Fraley-Monillas the talk became “gossipy” and included discussion of Cole’s “inappropriate” office attire (jeans, sneakers and earbuds), and clothing that revealed Cole’s lower back tattoo.

Fraley-Monillas expressed regret at having engaged in these discussion, and said that she feels now that it was “wrong” to discuss Cole in this way.

She also testified to Humann expressing doubts to her about what Cole was doing when she was not at her desk.  Fraley-Monillas also told the court that she has known and worked with Cooper for “about 20 years” and decided to ask him directly about Cole’s work absences.  She said that Cooper told her “she’s working, don’t worry about it.”

On the day Humann was terminated Fraley-Monillas heard the news while at home.  She received the memo from Cooper announcing this at about the time that Humann pulled into her driveway next door “in tears.”  Fraley-Monillas testified that Humann told her that she “took some files” from her office and wasn’t sure if she should return them.  She also said that Humann told her that despite attorney Cates being present when she cleaned out her office that “Cates was so stupid she didn’t know she (Humann) had taken the files,” and that Humann referred to her as “that bitch Sharon Cates.”

Fraley-Monillas also testified that Humann told her she was going to sue Cooper and get that “cute little historic house in Edmonds,” a reference to Cooper’s home in the Edmonds bowl which is on the Edmonds Register of Historic Places.

On cross examination by Beth Bloom, attorney for Humann, Fraley-Monillas testified that she had fielded “several” citizen complaints about not being able to contact Kim Cole due to her pattern of absences from the workplace.  Bloom asked her specifically about comments she is alleged to have made about Kim Cole’s Facebook activity during the workday.  Fraley-Monillas denied this, but did allow that she had suggested to Humann and Stephen Clifton that Cole’s Facebook posts “should be printed and kept.”

Asked if as a City Councilmember she was concerned that a city employee might be “stealing time from the City,” Fraley-Monillas responded that it’s “none of her business” if someone is being paid for time not worked.  As a councilmember she does not supervise staff, so this is none of her concern.  It’s between the employee and his/her supervisor.

Bloom then questioned Fraley-Monillas about how much she knew about Humann’s firing, whistleblower commplaints, and attempts to get her job back in the weeks leading up to the vote to eliminate the HR Director position.  Asked if she’d followed the numerous news reports and article, Fraley-Monillas responded,”I rarely read the local papers… the news tends to be too negative.”  Bloom also referenced the several council executive sessions for which Fraley-Monillas is listed as an attendee and at which the Humann situation was discussed.  Fraley-Monillas responded that she “couldn’t recollect exactly.”

In the closing minutes before court adjourned, John Kugler, attorney for Mike Cooper, asked several questions in an attempt to establish that Fraley-Monillas understands that the executive assistant works directly for the mayor and no one else, and is solely answerable to the mayor.  Kugler’s final question: “The root of this is that Debi Humann disagreed with how the mayor chose to supervise his employee, wouldn’t you agree?” to which Fraley-Monillas answered “yes.”

Reported by Larry Vogel

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