In contentious meeting, city council delays decision on tweaks to director appointment process

Councilmembers Tuesday night hear from South County Fire officials regarding proposed changes to the city’s fireworks ordinance.

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

  1. At this point any search that results in Lawless being appointed will have its legitimacy questioned, why spend a lot of time and money to pretend otherwise. As I said weeks ago interview two regional police deputy chiefs, even if that is just over a zoom chat, and then appoint Lawless. Will that break the letter of the law, yes, but it is “legal enough” and gets this in the rearview mirror so people can focus on other things.

  2. Granted, there is great support for Chief Lawless.

    Is there more to this new ordinance than is being disclosed? Unfortunately, this is a time of misinformation and disinformation. If ugly truths exist, we need our elected officials to lead and disclose those to us, so we as a city may work together.

    When a Mayor prematurely, and likely innocently, announces to media the appointment of a position, he may have set everyone up for damage control, i.e., How does a city still hire, and how does the City avoid a lawsuit(s)?

    It may have nothing to do with COVID19, but a mistake while learning on the job. Is changing the law, the ethical thing because a Mayor didn’t know the correct procedure of the existing ordinance?

    Is Attorney Taraday simply doing his job trying to save the city from lawsuits? Is he in a conflict of interests between protecting the Mayor, the Council, the Police Chief? Has Attorney Taraday communicated to the City Council why he was virtually persuading them on behalf of the Mayor during the City Council Meeting July 21? Did he disclose everything to the City Council members regarding potential ramifications? Is Council being asked to change the ordinance to save the city from lawsuits? Do they know that?

    If a new ordinance is the only way to avoid possible lawsuit(s), from Jim Lawless, and candidates or interviewees, are these two proposed ordinances the best options? There must be a way to fix the premature announcement without rewarding and enabling Mayors to have even more powers, with one candidate options. One candidate options could further remove our citizen involvement and knowledge of who will be working for us.

    Fellow Citizens, City Councilors are capable to find a better solution.

  3. I think Lori Rasmussen has laid out the questions here very well. And her last paragraph completely captures my point of view. Figure out how to solve this problem without giving all Mayors in the future too much power over hiring practices.

  4. This is bureaucracy perfectly perfected. The rules for hiring may be what’s needed in normal times, but these have not been normal times. The mayor had the opportunity to determine that the acting chief is just who he needs to do the job permanently. How does it now make any sense to waste everybody’s time to interview candidates who will not be hired? How can those doing the interviewing objectively compare someone they’ve spoken with for a couple of hours with someone who has appropriately performed the job for seven or more months? And why would any qualified person who knows the situation even bother to be a candidate? These are unusual times, so an exception to the rules needs to be made and Jim Lawless named to the job permanently.

    Additionally, the three first-term councilmembers who voted to support this bureaucracy need to soon realize that they were selected to be independent thinkers – not simply puppets.

  5. Here is a thought. Council could pass an ordinance making an exception to the hiring rules written specifically for Chief Lawless. No ongoing problem for any future hires. No money spent on a search and it takes Chief Lawless out of limbo. These have been extraordinary times, Mayor Nelson should not gain any benefit ( he also fired the finance director for unknown reasons, and that position needs to be filled). A very specific ordinance, written for this situation and hiring Chief Lawless should easily accomplish that goal. It might also help to repair some trust. It also leaves the current ordinances in place.

  6. I just listened to the whole discussion about changing Council rules to allow the Mayor to bring forth an internal candidate for Council approval without having to go through an expensive and time consuming search of more candidates. Those who voted against the Motion seemed to think that there was no downside to their vote. Nothing could be further from the truth. Besides the time and expense of having to bring in more people to interview, we risk losing an excellent potential Chief. All this at a time when the Covid virus and demand for more police accountability is at a peak. It would be helpful if those who voted against this reasonable and important change answered the following questions: 1. Do you have someone else in mind for this position? 2. What requirements are you looking for in a Chief and how does Mr. Lawless not meet those requirements? 3. Will you take responsibility if Mr. Lawless resigns?
    Hopefully, at least one of the four who voted against allowing the Mayor to proceed with bringing Acting Chief Lawless’ name forward for Council approval will “Move to Reconsider” at the next meeting – a motion that allows a former action to be voted on again if it did not pass at the prior meeting. Check, of course, with Clerk and Council to confirm that ability.
    I was encouraged that Mr. Nelson kept an open mind and was willing to change course for the good of the community after seeing and hearing ALL the arguments for and against the existing policy. I was pleased when Council found a potential solution. Many will now be disappointed that we may lose time, money but most important, an outstanding Chief for no apparent reason. We deserve an explanation.

    1. Excellent comment Maggie.

      You bring up some great points. We are in a critical time right now, and cannot waste money and time on pointless and frivolous measures.

      Chief Lawless has already proven himself in many, many ways. Fraley-MoniIlas should realize that since she noted how police departments are under scrutiny right now, that Chief Lawless has already proven himself to be an excellent partner for sensible police reform. It would be a tragic mistake to miss out on that. We are lucky to have a public servant like him in Edmonds.

      Everyone who agrees with the points Maggie made, should do their civic duty and write to the four Council Member to convince them why they should “Move to Reconsider.”

      Sometimes it just takes a little time for common sense to sink in… Hopefully it will for them soon.

      1. Regarding Reconsideration, I have been asking City Council to disclose Reconsideration procedures to the public for years. For example, should Reconsideration require an application? Should a Reconsideration request have to show that Council was provided false, misleading, inaccurate, or incomplete information prior to its vote? Does anything automatically warrant Reconsideration? Or is it simply arbitrary, dependent on whether one can somehow motivate a Councilmember to sponsor Reconsideration?
        Following is one example of a request I made – the following was sent to City Council on January 8, 2018:
        “Subject: Re: Formal Request for procedures/policies that govern City Council reconsideration of prior Legislative Acts

        It has been more than 5 months and I am still waiting for a response to my Formal Request for procedures/policies that govern City Council reconsideration of prior Legislative Acts.

        Please simply be fair and tell all citizens the procedures that govern City Council reconsideration of prior Legislative Acts. What is the policy? How can citizens and/or others get the City Council to reconsider the Council’s Legislative Acts?

        Please do not ignore this reasonable request like all of you have done in the past.”

        Reconsideration procedures/policies have never been provided.

    2. We can look at the same situation and see things differently. One person can watch a discussion and conclude that the discussion was about changing Council rules to allow the Mayor to bring forth an internal candidate for Council approval without having to go through an expensive and time consuming search of more candidates. Another can watch and conclude this is about Council being asked to change laws long after the Mayor chose to violate the Code by announcing his April 9, 2020 appointment prior to Council interviewing the required number of candidates. And this was not just a mistake by Mayor Nelson. Mayor Nelson knew the law as evidenced by the February 18, 2020 Council Agenda Packet. He had also participated in the legal process more than once as a member of the Council.
      One person can say those who voted against the Motion seemed to think that there was no downside to their vote. Another can think that those who voted for the Motion seemed to think there is no downside to changing laws after the fact.
      Common Sense tells me that if this law can simply be changed after it has been broken, citizens may think our existing laws and ordinances are built on a weak foundation. Common Sense tells me that it is best to keep it pure and for our Mayors to perform their duty of seeing that our laws and ordinances are faithfully enforced, even laws that apply to Mayors.
      We all have our different opinions. I think it dangerous to follow a path that involves changing laws after they have been violated. I think it best to keep it simple and follow the Code as adopted. If one wants to act contrary to the existing Code, request a Code Update PRIOR to acting.

  7. Not against Chief Lawless, as I have said before I would be fine with him being appointed, but when I look at that zoom window above and ones in other articles I see a gender balance but not a picture that reflects the entire Edmonds community. Are there people of color in senior positions in Edmonds government that I’m not seeing in these articles?

  8. AA, there is definitely some bias! Two council members made statements in mid-July that they will “push for anti-racist policies and systemic changes for equity in the city”. BUT they both pushed forward a system for residents to get relief dollars that is in English only, requires a computer and computer literacy. The places where people can get computer help like the library and senior center are closed. Many of the people that need it most will not be able to even know about it or access it because of the way it was setup. This is such white privilege. I watched the video this week and thought that as some council members threw stones from their glass houses that it was definitely amateur hour.

  9. This process is a total disservice and slap in the face to Jim Lawless for doing a stellar job during unprecedented times. How is the recruiting process being adequately conducted to bring in candidates during a pandemic? All potential candidates will know of the treatment of Lawless. Why would any candidate with the stellar qualities needed for our city even want to work here with the way the city treats one of the top directors? Have these council members thought this through? I hope they wake up in time to keep Jim Lawless working for our protection and allowing him to continue his exemplary service to the City of Edmonds.

  10. Edmonds is a nice city and Lawless seems like a good fit but lets step back from the cliff for a second, if he was to leave tomorrow the world would not stop spinning and there are 1,000’s of equaly qualified candidates around the country.

    If the council can meet over zoom then interviews can be handled the same way. Some candidate from Marysville or Richland or the 100’s of out of state cities equivalent in size to Edmonds might be just as good or (gasp) better.

    Covid is the excuse for everything but really how much of the interview process has ever been inside of 6 feet in the past? Was some candidate from Ohio going to fly over here and interview in person a year ago, will they 5 years from now? If Lawless had of died in April in a car accident does anyone think the position would have just sat open because of Covid?

    Interview two other qualified people and then pick Lawless, stop kicking the can down the road, should have been done months ago.

  11. Yes and no, it would be doing the search that should have already taken place, but with the outcome predetermined it certainly breaks the spirit of the law. As long as the other two candidates are qualified for the position and not say you and I, there is the off chance one could wow the council and win. Any search at this point that Lawless wins will be questioned even if it costs $100,000 and takes a year. So either withdraw him, do the least costly search to satisfy the law or declare it a Covid Emergency Action and grant the Mayor temporary powers that will end when the emergency ends.

  12. What is the status of the work with the recruiting company for the Police Chief position, the HR Director announced, from the beginning of the year? What has the Mayor done in the past week regarding moving forward with the recruitment process, in which Attorney Taraday said Mike Nelson was legally obligated to do? Have applications come in anytime since the beginning of the year and today? If yes, is there an obligation to review those applications and bring candidates in to interview?

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