As it became clear Tuesday night that some of her fellow city councilmembers weren’t supporting a code amendment that would allow Mayor Mike Nelson to bring forth Edmonds’ Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless as the sole candidate for the permanent chief job, a visibly frustrated Vivian Olson called the council proceedings “an amateur hour.”
“It’s been completely ridiculous and despicable and I’m ashamed to have had any part in it,” Olson said, adding she hoped that those councilmembers not supporting the code change would face ramifications at the ballot box during a future election.
Olson — a first-term councilmember elected in November — was immediately rebuked by Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, who said she found Olson’s claim of amateur hour “pretty interesting coming from someone who has sat on council for six months.” Fraley-Monillas also labeled as offensive Olson’s “threats” about what might happen to councilmembers in the next city election cycle.
A short time later, Olson apologized to the council, city staff, the mayor and citizens for her remarks. Then Mayor Nelson made an emotional speech reiterating why he believes Lawless is the best person for the job. And the council agreed to pause a final decision on the matter until next week’s Aug. 4 council meeting.
The discussion about whether the council should make a code change to accommodate the mayor’s choice of police chief was one of two hot-button issues scheduled to be addressed Tuesday night. Deliberations on the second issue — a proposal to add bike lanes citywide that would be funded by a Sound Transit grant — were postponed until next week, although the topic drew a wide range of public comments via Zoom from citizens who both supported and opposed the bike lane expansion.
Discussion about the director appointment process started July 21, when Nelson proposed to modify the council confirmation process for a director-level employee in an “acting” position. While that proposal was immediately aimed at ensuring the confirmation of Lawless — whom Nelson had earlier declared was his choice for the permanent police chief job — it also would apply to any future situation where a mayor wanted to request that the council allow just one candidate to come before them if the person had served in an acting capacity. (Under the current code, the mayor is required to bring three candidates before the council for director positions unless the council grants a waiver to allow just two candidates.)
On Tuesday night, July 28, the council was faced with two new options. First, there was a revised version of the July 21st proposal that reduced the “acting” time period from six months to three months. This would allow the confirmation “to occur prior to the expiration of the acting appointment,” which can last no longer than six months.
In addition, staff on July 28 presented council with a second option to consider — one that would allow the mayor to delay active recruiting if he or she was considering the permanent appointment of an acting director.
Fraley-Monillas stressed the importance of following council procedures as well as involving the citizens in the police chief selection process, a position that was reinforced by Councilmembers Laura Johnson.
“Right now police departments around the country are under intense scrutiny,” Johnson said, “and if there was ever a time to not only follow our policy and procedures but to go the distance and make sure we make the best choice for Edmonds, this is it,” she said.
Councilmember Luke Distelhorst said he wasn’t ready to make a decision Tuesday night, adding he wanted more time to study the latest proposals.
Lawless — for many years an assistant chief in Edmonds — was appointed acting police chief following the retirement of long-time Chief Al Compaan in December. However, after Mayor Nelson took office in January, he indicated his intent to perform a national search for a new chief. That process, however, was put on hold in early March due to the COVI9-19 pandemic.
Then, in April, Nelson issued a press release stating that Acting Chief Lawless would be the city’s next permanent police chief, pending city council confirmation.
During his impassioned speech Tuesday night, Nelson explained that when he came into office in January, he wanted to have a choice of police chief. However, he said, his thinking shifted after COVID-19 arrived and he had a chance to see Lawless in action. Despite the fact that there was “no playbook” on how to keep both the community and his officers safe during a pandemic, Lawless “has done an outstanding job,” Nelson said. “I changed my mind. And I decided that he is actually the best person for our city. So I announced that.”
As part of the announcement, however, Nelson said he stressed that his choice of Lawless was subject to council confirmation. Addressing the reason for requesting the code change, the mayor added; “I’m very doubtful we will find candidates right now who are able to apply and can do any of the kinds of things right now that will fill the need and immediacy during this crisis. He (Lawless) is the best person for the job.”
Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson both expressed support for the acting chief, adding they were disappointed with how the process has been handled so far.
Lawless “has been doing a stellar job and suddenly we have treated him, I believe, terribly,” Buckshnis said.
“I think it’s been a great disservice to Mr. Lawless to have this period of uncertainty,” Johnson said.
Buckshnis then made a motion for the council to approve the ordinance option that reduced the “acting” time period from six months to three months. It failed on a 3-4 vote, with Councilmembers Fraley-Monillas, Susan Paine, Laura Johnson and Distlehorst opposed.
There was discussion about trying to pass the second ordinance option instead but the council voted unanimously to postpone further discussion until next week. Because of the delay, city code requires that Nelson will have to “begin a recruitment process” for a second candidate, Taraday said.
Fraley-MoniIlas said she doesn’t believe “there should be any issue or concern with bringing other names forward. Everyone seems to be in support of Officer Lawless and I think that we just need the code to be followed and allow the public to have some input,” she added.
The council also:
– Held a joint meeting with the Edmonds Planning Board to learn more about their current work plan.
— Heard from South County Fire officials regarding a proposed ordinance that would update the city’s fireworks code so that violations would be a misdemeanor rather than a civil penalty. Mayor Nelson proposed the changes in response to a higher-than-usual number of fireworks-related calls over the Fourth of July weekend, Violators would be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000 and/or jail not to exceed 90 days. When asked how this new law would be enforced, Nelson replied that since police are often stretched thin on July 4th, both fire and police officials would be authorized to provide enforcement. No action was taken on this item.
Due to the lateness of the hour, two items were postponed until next week:
— Approval of the 2021w-2026 Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program
— Approval of a Sound Transit funding agreement to add new bicycle lanes citywide.
— By Teresa Wippel