$337 is not a lot of money. But $337 is the flashpoint that ignited an inflammatory and seemingly endless debate in Edmonds City Council.
“I think this was a witch hunt.”
—Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas
“It’s hard to overlook the position of bias.”
–Councilmember Laura Johnson
“I’ve been slandered tonight, and I’ve been accused of bias and I just want that to be on the record.”
–Councilmember Vivian Olson
The $337 is not the real story. The story is the internal council battle that, for the last several months, has pitted members against one another; much of it focused on the debate over a new police chief.
Police Chief Search
In early December, Councilmember Vivian Olson spent $337 of her own money to get copies of testimony in a federal lawsuit that raised questions about the experience and past behavior of Sherman Pruitt, one of the two candidates for Edmonds chief last year.
She distributed copies to all councilmembers and the mayor just before the confirmation vote on Pruitt. Olson insists she was concerned because the city’s Human Resources department did not have those documents and she felt the council should consider the information before the Pruitt vote.
That never happened. Four councilmembers (Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Susan Paine, Luke Distelhorst and Laura Johnson) claimed the city and the human resources department already knew about and vetted that information and said nothing in the documents prevented Pruitt’s hiring. Three others (Olson, Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson) said they and human resources did not have the documents until Olson provided them.
In the federal testimony, Pruitt admitted being involved in past incidents of domestic violence. Edmonds police hiring regulations state that “any domestic violence incident,” not just a conviction, is an “automatic disqualifier’ for any officer’ (to be hired).
The council never publicly discussed the documents; a motion to discuss them in executive session failed on a 4-3 vote. In early December, Fraley-Monillas and Mayor Mike Nelson had agreed to move up the confirmation vote by a week, and the Council (4-3) confirmed Pruitt as chief. Just days later, Nelson rescinded the offer. He did not cite the court testimony as a reason for doing so.
March 2021 Council Debate
Olson then submitted her $337 invoice to the council to be reimbursed, which is allowed by city code. The debate erupted. Last December, 2020 Council President Fraley-Monillas refused to accept the reimbursement, saying she, as council president, had not authorized the expense In March, Olson submitted it again. “I don’t find this reasonable or prudent,” said Fraley-Monillas at the March 9 council session. “This is HR work and not the work of a councilmember.” Monillas also said that such background work “was not brought up until the person was chosen to be the first person of color to be Edmonds police chief.”
Olson argued the documents had nothing to do with race but were part of the “due diligence” that any councilmember is entitled to do to vet appointments. Councilmember Diane Buckshnis supported her. Councilmembers “have had many respectful disagreements,” acknowledged Buckshnis, “but there has been precedent, and the (council) finance committee recommended to pay it and move on.”
Councilmember Laura Johnson interjected: “If we were to approve and reimburse this unauthorized expense, it would interfere with the work of trained professionals and we’re dipping into an administrative function; but more importantly, it would set a dangerous precedent with respect to liability.”
Current Council President Susan Paine had also refused to authorize payment. She argued that there had been no prior approval by the council president as required, and that “it is not a part of council’s typical responsibility… this presentation does put the city at a level of liability and risk.”
Councilmember Kristiana Johnson said, “HR knew about this information, but it was not shared” (with some councilmembers). “I really credit Councilmember Olson,” she added, “for doing this research and bringing to the council.”
Councilmember Luke Distelhorst also rejected support for the payment, in part because, “it does include potential liability (for the city) as I understand it”.
Monillas alleged that, “I think this (Olson’s information) has created a lot of issues in the Black community. In my personal opinion, and this is my opinion,” she added, “I think this was a witch hunt. And I don’t mean that it was a ‘witch’ witch hunt as I believe this was looking for problems that could occur.”
Countered Olson, “I object to being painted, as I was by Councilmember Monillas in terms of digging for dirt; when I found this, it seemed like a stone that should be turned over.”
City Attorney Jeff Taraday was asked for his legal opinion. “The council,” he said, “is not required to trust the mayor or the mayor’s staff with recommendations that have come forward.” The issue, Taraday said, is that councilmembers should ask “Not whether you would have spent the money or gone to the trouble to acquire the information. It is not relevant whether you agree that this money needed to be spent.”
Explained Taraday, “It’s clearly money spent in the course of the council member doing their duty,” and that the member requesting reimbursement “is doing so out of good faith.” He also said he is not sure the issue of liability is germane to the reimbursement, that he had “no reason to believe that’s an issue.”
That didn’t resolve a thing. Councilmembers delayed a vote to the April meeting.
April 2021 Council Debate
During the April 20 Council meeting, Fraley-Monillas leveled a new accusation: “Has Pruitt’s information been provided as to the objections he has, to the council?”
Olson shot back: “Pruitt objects to me as a council member being reimbursed?”
Monillas: “He has an objection because he believes Ms. Olson has implied bias and every aspect of what she did had to do with his color.” Then, she told the council, “I know he has spoken with the HR director.”
But City Attorney Taraday tells My Edmonds News that is not so. “The administration has not had any discussions with Mr. Pruitt,” Taraday wrote in an email, “since he was disqualified in December 2020. Furthermore, the city attorney’s office is not aware of any pending threat of litigation from Mr. Pruitt and has not been engaged in any negotiations or other discussions with him.”
So, back to square one. Councilmember Olson believes she is entitled to her $337. The issue will come back on a future council agenda, but no date has been set.
— By Bob Throndsen