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Published: Thursday, October 13, 2011, 7:58 p.m.

Edmonds staffer fired by mayor files complaint claiming retaliation

Edmonds' former human resources director says she lost her job in an act of retaliation by the mayor.

EDMONDS -- Former Human Resources Director Debi Humann filed a complaint with the city Thursday alleging she was wrongfully fired by the mayor for reporting possible misconduct involving his executive assistant.
Humann alleges Mayor Mike Cooper acted in retaliation after he learned she had informed state auditors of potential improprieties of payroll records submitted by Kimberly Cole, Cooper's assistant.
Humann claims her termination Sept. 22 violated a state law that protects whistleblowers in local government. Under that law, the city has 30 days to respond to her demand for full back pay and benefits, attorney fees and reinstatement, or it could land in court.
Money is not her motivation, Humann insisted Thursday.
"I just want my job back," she said.
Cooper declined to respond to the allegations until consulting with the city's attorney.
"She was an at-will employee terminated because over time the level of trust broke down to the point where we could not work together," he said. "We offered to negotiate a buyout with Debi Humann and she chose not to do it."
Humann's firing rocked City Hall, where tensions between Humann, Cole and Cooper had been boiling up for months.
In her one-paragraph complaint and a press release, Humann laid out her case for deserving whistleblower protection. She said employees brought her their concerns about a co-worker -- Cole is not specifically named, though it's clear from the context it is she -- who they said was rarely at work, did not submit proper payroll documentation and received unearned vacation time and sick leave.
Humann said she informed Cooper of the concerns in writing and in person multiple times in recent months. She then sent documents to the state auditor's office, whose staff had begun a scheduled audit of city financial records. The state later asked for materials to audit the timesheets of one employee.
Humann contends at the time of her firing she was participating in an investigation at the direction of the state auditor's office.
Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the auditor's office, said they are not conducting an investigation.
"We're doing an audit. It was a scheduled audit and we asked for additional documents related to payroll," she said.
Under state law, Humann's complaint could lead to a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. She and the city also could settle the matter with reinstatement or another means.
The outcome could hinge on the results of the mayoral election. Humann is unlikely to get her job back if Cooper wins, but her prospects might improve if challenger Dave Earling becomes mayor.
"We'll just see how this election turns out. I don't have a crystal ball," she said. "I worked hard for the city for 13 years. I love the employees. I'm good at my job."
She said she had not spoken with Earling about returning if he wins.
"That would be inappropriate," she said.
Meanwhile, Cole, who resigned the same day as Humann's firing, might be embroiled in future legal action against the city.
She resigned after negotiating what she thought would be an $84,000 settlement to sever ties with the city. But the City Council subsequently rejected the deal reached by Cooper, Cole and attorneys for her and the city.
Today, Cole is on paid administrative leave. She's hired a lawyer and has alleged the actions of other employees created a hostile work environment. The city has hired an outside attorney to investigate the charge.
Cole's lawyer said Thursday his client is "committed to her responsibilities as a city employee."
"Any dispute Ms. Humann has with the city of Edmonds is between her and the city," attorney James Spencer wrote in an email. Cole "will not discuss this matter with outside parties unless directed to do so by her supervisor. We've said all along that the truth is on our client's side, and we're happy with any action that helps bring that truth into the public discourse."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EdmondsLabor disputeEmployersEmployees

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