By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EDMONDS — The city’s former human resources director filed a federal lawsuit against the city and former Mayor Mike Cooper, saying she was fired in 2011 for raising questions about payroll irregularities.
Debi Humann alleges that Cooper terminated her after she confronted him about time sheets involving his executive assistant, Kim Cole. Humann at the time told Cooper she was cooperating with a state Auditor’s Office investigation into Cole’s time sheets, according to the suit. That risked implicating the mayor because he had signed off.
The suit was filed Jan. 17 in federal court because it involves alleged violations of Humann’s constitutional rights to due process as well as defamation. She is pursuing a separate whistle-blower complaint through the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings.
“We feel confident that the courts and the jury will vindicate Debi, as have all others who have independently and objectively evaluated the facts of this case,” said Cliff Freed, one of Humann’s attorneys.
In addition to Freed, she’s being represented by Beth Barrett Bloom and Christie J. Fix, all from Seattle law firm Frank Freed Subit &Thomas LLP.
Cooper fired Humann in September 2011. She says she received no hearing or other process before being let go.
The suit asks the courts to make the city conduct a hearing and issue a press release clearing Humann’s name. It requests unspecified damages to compensate her for injury to her professional reputation, embarrassment and emotional distress. The suit seeks unspecified punitive damages against Cooper.
Cooper on Tuesday said his attorney had advised him not to comment.
Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling referred questions about the case to an attorney who works for the city.
Humann’s complaint accuses Cooper of violating her rights and defaming her with statements he later made to media outlets about why he let her go. Humann contends the former mayor made false statements to the media to protect his reputation and to punish her for cooperating with the state auditor.
Cooper has said he terminated Humann because his level of trust in her deteriorated to the point where they could no longer work together.
“The city’s ability to function relies on a relationship between the Mayor and staff that is based on the highest level of trust and confidentiality,” said a statement from Cooper after the firing. “In order to have the public trust the city needs a committed staff that maintains that highest level of trust with the mayor and council.”
After Humann left her job, the Edmonds City Council eliminated her position in a cost-saving move.
Cooper in 2011 lost a lopsided election to Earling, who took nearly 65 percent of the vote.
Upon taking office, Earling promptly fired Cole from her $79,000-a-year job.
Attendance issues continued to dog Cole in Lynnwood, where she served on the City Council. In September, her Lynnwood City Council peers removed her from the elected post for missing too many meetings.
An outside investigation into the circumstances of Humann’s firing and allegations Cole made about workplace harassment in Edmonds were favorable to the former human resources director. It was conducted by attorney Jim Webber of Kirkland, who was retained by the city’s insurance provider.
Among the findings the city released in early 2012: 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.
In May, Humann filed a damage claim with Edmonds, effectively putting the city on notice that she intended to sue. She had been with the city since 1999.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.