Who will permanently fill the job of Edmonds police chief has been a longstanding topic of conversation in Edmonds ever since Chief Al Compaan announced his retirement in December 2019. And if Tuesday’s Edmonds City Council discussion was any indication, the matter is not yet settled.
When Compaan retired, long-time Assistant Chief Jim Lawless was appointed acting police chief, However, after new Edmonds Mayor Mike 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.
“One measure of a person’s worth is how they perform during a crisis,” Nelson said. “This has been a crisis like no other. Acting Chief Lawless has been a steady, firm hand during a time of uncertainty. I can’t imagine a person better suited for this job than Jim.”
Fast forward to July. Communities across the U.S. are evaluating their relationship with law enforcement following the Minneapolis police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, that unleashed protests against police brutality locally and around the world. Nelson announced he was forming an Equity and Justice Advisory Task Force “to help identify and correct issues of systemic and implicit bias within city operations in response to the aggressions and inequities perpetrated on African-Americans around the nation and in our region.”
He and Lawless also pledged in a joint announcement to address community concerns about policing and racial justice in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Lawless said that in conjunction with the mayor’s Equity and Justice Advisory Task Force, he would be forming a Community Response Team that will work with the mayor’s task force and other community members “to address concerns that may arise related to police interactions with the community.”
Lawless has been serving in an acting chief capacity under a six-month appointment, and that appointment expired June 30. The council Tuesday night unanimously agreed to give the mayor the authority to extend the duration of that appointment for up to another six months. But some councilmembers also wanted to know how the deadline for renewing Lawless’ acting appointment was missed.
City Human Resource Director Jessica Nell-Hoyson explained that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, state Open Public Meetings Act rules were modified to limit what topics government bodies could consider during their meetings. Edmonds’ city code currently requires that the mayor bring before the council three candidates for an open director position. While Lawless was Nelson’s preferred candidate, bringing him before the council as a single candidate would require a city code change, which wasn’t allowed under COVID-19 rules, Nell-Hoyson said.
Now that those public meeting restrictions have eased, Nelson has proposed modifying the confirmation process — a proposal that was discussed by the council Tuesday night. It would allow the council to confirm someone who has served the City of Edmonds in an acting director capacity for at least six months. Like any other exception to the three-candidate rule, the proposed exception would still require a supermajority vote of the city council to waive the three-interview requirement.
“The proposed code amendment doesn’t allow the mayor to automatically bring forward one candidate,” City Human Resources Director Jessica Nell Hoyson said. “It allows the mayor to request that exception of the council, who then has to approve that in that instance. It is not an automatic.”
Councilmember Kristiana Johnson expressed concerns about the proposal, stating that if the council were to adopt the one-interview rule it “would basically eliminate the city council from any choice.”
However, City Attorney Jeff Taraday countered that the council doesn’t really have a choice when it comes to appointments. “That really is the mayor’s power,” Taraday said. “Even if the council has a favorite among three candidates, the mayor is under no obligation to appoint that candidate. It is always the mayor’s choice whether it’s one interview, two interviews or three interviews.”
Councilmember Laura Johnson reiterated her original support of Nelson’s earlier plan to bring three candidates forward for Edmonds police chief, adding said she’d like to see the process “go the distance and make the best choice for the citizens of Edmonds.” Councilmember Luke Distelhorst agreed, specifically pointing to the mayor’s Equity and Justice Task Force and its work on police policies. “I think it’s important to hear what those recommendations are for our police department and then reflect on those in regard to the chief of police position,” Distelhorst said.
Distelhorst noted that the extension of Lawless’ acting appointment through Dec. 30, 2020 potentially provides “a six-month runway…that may give us more time to evaluate some of these ongoing work streams that directly impact this position and its relationship with the community.”
Councilmember Vivian Olson countered that she was “very disappointed to hear those sentiments expressed” about reconsidering Lawless’ permanent appointment, stating that Edmonds has “been so well served our chief during unbelievable circumstances.”
In other matters Tuesday night, the council:
– Had considerable discussion about a proposed citywide project, funded by a $1.85 million Sound Transit Access grant, to add bike lanes on both sides of various Edmonds streets, including: 100th Avenue from 244th Street Southwest to Walnut Street, Bowdoin Way from 9th Avenue South to 84th Avenue West, and 228th Street Southwest from 78th Avenue West to 80th Avenue West. In addition, the project calls for sharrows to be added along 80th Avenue West from 228th Street Southwest to 220th Street Southwest. The council also heard testimony from citizens on the project.
Some citizens and councilmembers expressed concerns about parking spaces being taken up by bike lanes. Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said she has heard complaints from people who can’t find a place to park on 84th Avenue West near 5 Corners, where bike lanes were recently added. Both Buckshnis and Councilmember Susan Paine worried about the safety of bicyclists if lanes were added to the heavily congested area around the Westgate shopping area.
The project drew support from representatives of the Edmonds Bicycle Advocacy Group, who said the bike lanes will improve safety for all bicyclists and also give new riders more confidence.
In the end, the council agreed to postpone action on the plan until next week’s council meeting.
In other business, the council:
– Heard details of the city’s Six Year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a transportation planning document that identifies funded, partially funded and unfunded projects that are planned or needed over the next six calendar years. That document will also be considered for approval during next week’s council meeting.
– Received a development activities update from the Development Services Department, which highlighted new projects that are underway or completed. You can see the complete presentation here.
– Unanimously approved a contract with City Hearing Examiner Phil Olbrechts for another four-year term.
– Approved a proposal to extend the personal services contract for a program administrator at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
A scheduled review of the updated draft City Council Code of Conduct was moved to next week’s agenda due to the lateness of the hour.
— By Teresa Wippel