Published: Monday, January 16, 2012

Investigation disputes claims of harassment by former assist to ex-mayor

Kimberly Cole, who worked for the previous mayor of Edmonds, made 14 allegations in the fall and is suing the city.

By Mina Williams
Herald writer
EDMONDS -- A report by an independent investigator found that most of a former mayor’s executive assistant’s claims of harassment and hostility in the workplace were unfounded.
Kimberly Cole, who worked for former Mayor Mike Cooper during his 16-month term, made 14 separate allegations last fall, ranging from her fears that people were spreading gossip about an inappropriate relationship between her and the mayor to her fears that someone may have electronically bugged her office.
Cole, who is also a Lynnwood city councilwoman, was fired from the $79,000-a-year job in November after Mayor Dave Earling took office after ousting Cooper in the election.
Cole is suing the city for as much as $84,000 plus a year of health benefits. The city has until Feb. 9 to respond to Cole’s claims.
The 18-page investigation report, prepared by attorney Jim Webber, of Kirkland, was publicly released Jan. 11. Webber was retained by the city’s insurance provider.
“The report really reads like a whitewash of the facts, to try and absolve the city of any real liability,” said James Spencer, Cole’s attorney. “When allegations are listed separately there is not clarity. When taken in their totality, it clearly demonstrates a hostile work environment.”
Debi Humann, the city’s former human resource director and the focus of many of Cole’s charges, said she was glad the report was released. She was fired from her job last year by Cooper, who questioned her ability to do her job and cited a growing lack of trust between them.
“I believe (the report) exonerates me of all the charges Cole and Cooper have made against me,” Humann said.
Humann has requested a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, where she plans to argue that she lost her job because of retaliation. Since Humann was fired, the Edmonds City Council has eliminated her position in a cost-saving move.
Among the attorney’s findings:
• Humann talked to Cooper about whether Cole was working 40 hours, and she had a “legitimate basis for expressing those concerns” to him. The attorney did not find that Humann was talking to others in the office about Cole’s schedule and attendance, as Cole alleged.
• One employee kept track on his calendar when Cole arrived and left, because the employee said it was obvious that Cole was frequently absent. The employee told the investigator that it concerned him because other employees had to field calls to the mayor’s office. Cole alleged that other employees were monitoring her time.
• Humann questioned the accuracy of some of Cole’s timesheets to the interim finance director. She stopped short of accusing Cole of falsifying her paperwork. Cole claims that Humann had said she forged her timesheets.
• Several employees wondered about the mayor and his assistant’s relationship, because of the amount of her salary, her past working relationship with Cooper when she was an assistant for him while he was a Snohomish County councilman, and her ability to set her own schedule. Cole alleged that Humann told other employees that there was an “inappropriate personal relationship” between Cooper and Cole. The attorney found the allegation false.
• Cole alleged that someone was going through items on her desk or had electronically bugged her office. The attorney wrote that Cole could offer nothing more than suspicion and speculation; “she was not able to articulate any specific information to show that someone was electronically eavesdropping on her workplace conversations or who might be doing such a thing.”
• Cole felt she may have been treated poorly because she needed time off for medical appointments. The attorney wrote that Cole could not provide any example of any “derogatory comments, other statements or actions that could connect what she experienced to either her disability or her gender.”