The April 5 Edmonds City Council meeting. Inset, from left: Mayor Mike Nelson and council members Kristiana Johnson, Will Chen, Neil Tibbott, Diane Buckshnis, Vivian Olson, Susan Paine and Laura Johnson. (City of Edmonds)

The April 5 Edmonds City Council meeting. Inset, from left: Mayor Mike Nelson and council members Kristiana Johnson, Will Chen, Neil Tibbott, Diane Buckshnis, Vivian Olson, Susan Paine and Laura Johnson. (City of Edmonds)

Edmonds ex-staffers say council ‘bullying’ pushed them out

The city has lost at least five department heads since 2019. Staffers say there is a general “lack of civility.”

EDMONDS — In resignation letters and interviews, outgoing city of Edmonds staffers have cited a “lack of civility” and “derogatory” comments from the City Council as factors contributing to high turnover in management over the past three years.

In 2021, directors retired or resigned in Public Works, Development Services, and Economic & Community Services departments. The city has also lost its Human Resources and Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services directors since 2019.

One former and four current Edmonds city employees agreed to speak to The Herald on the condition of anonymity. They said they feared retaliation.

The turnover, they said, “doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

“That sort of thing doesn’t happen because things are going swimmingly,” one staffer said. “And some of them are retirements — some of them were early retirements. One individual was six months away from his retirement, but he didn’t want those last six months to be in Edmonds. So he’s spending them in another city.”

‘Flat-out derogatory’

Often, the employees said, Edmonds staff get caught in the middle of elected officials’ politics. It’s not a new concern.

A decade ago, former Finance Director Lorenzo Hines left the city of Edmonds, citing “hostile” emails and personal interactions between him, longtime Councilmember Diane Buckshnis and then-Councilmember Michael Plunkett, Lynnwood Today reported.

In Hines’ initial complaint to human resources, he said Buckshnis “portrays me as incompetent, lazy and slow to respond to her requests,” My Edmonds News then reported.

The city hired an outside attorney to investigate Hines’ complaint. The report concluded some of the “communications and comments at issue may be construed as rude or uncivil,” but it did not amount to discrimination.

Eight years ago, former Finance Director Roger Neumaier stepped down from his post, citing a “lack of civility” among “certain council members.”

In 2019, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite left for a job in Redmond. In her letter of resignation, she said the “political environment in Edmonds seems different” and contributed to her departure.

“The relationship the Council has with the Administration has been impactful to staff, city processes and policies,” she wrote. “It is difficult to navigate this and feel a sense of teamwork and security.”

The same year, Human Resources Director Mary Ann Hardie left for a job in Lacey. She had worked for Edmonds for 14 years.

At the close of a City Council meeting in May 2019, then-Mayor Dave Earling read a statement regarding Hardie’s resignation that referenced “flat-out derogatory” comments by council members about city directors and herself.

Buckshnis was critical of Hardie’s support of the former mayor’s proposal to give 8% raises to seven city directors and two assistant police chiefs. She later told the Edmonds Beacon she was concerned that salary increases were not brought to the council for vetting first.

In a February email, Buckshnis told former Councilmember Joan Bloom that the former mayor “sensationalized” Hardie’s departure, according to public records obtained by The Herald.

“I have everything documented as to why Roger Neumeier and Hines left,” Buckshnis wrote to Bloom. “Mary Ann left as she had another job — that was sensationalized by Earling because I was able to kabosh the connector and rather than blame (former Councilmember) Adrienne (Fraley-Monillas). … She went to Lacey — one week after my ‘so called’ bully comment from the Dias. He was the bully not me!”

‘It’s ridiculous’

Last May, Development Services Director Shane Hope announced her retirement. She had worked for Edmonds for seven years, following 11 years at the city of Mountlake Terrace.

After serving Edmonds for over 11 years, Public Works Director Phil Williams opted to finish his career at the city of Redmond. For the entirety of his tenure, he focused on proposals to rehabilitate the Edmonds marsh. He told The Herald he felt his department had good ideas — many prepared by “competent consultants” like fish and wildlife experts.

“Some council members thought very differently,” he said. “And occasionally, they made that quite personal, and that was unfair.”

One former staffer said a council member’s comments drove a marsh consultant to tears.

Ultimately, little progress was made on marsh restoration, Williams said.

In July 2021, Buckshnis left a voicemail to another council member, where she remarked the public works director “ruined” the Edmonds marsh.

A Northern Pintail feeds in the Edmonds Marsh. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

A Northern Pintail feeds in the Edmonds Marsh. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

“And I just think that it’s ridiculous that Phil was allowed to even think that we need to put that money towards the marsh,” Buckshnis said, “which he has ruined for years.”

Williams left the city in November.

Economic and Community Services Director Patrick Doherty also announced his retirement in November, after seven years with the city.

Early this year, Edmonds Council President Vivian Olson decided not to renew Legislative Aide Maureen Judge’s contract.

Buckshnis, whose communication style was noted as a factor in at least one director’s resignation, initially declined to comment for this story, citing a public records request by a former City Council member asking for her communications with The Herald. She later told The Herald to provide questions in writing.

“During my tenure there have been many wonderful and dedicated employees that either retired or moved on to better paying jobs and I didn’t see question about those employees,” Buckshnis wrote in an emailed reply.

She listed 21 former employees by name, including Hines, Hite, Neumaier, Hardie, Hope, Williams and Doherty.

“I still keep in touch with some of these employees today,” Buckshnis wrote.

‘How do you police civility?’

The Council Code of Conduct is intended to shield city employees from council members’ derogatory comments.

Edmonds council members are expected to value the “resources and relationships” with city staff by using respectful language, providing questions ahead of public meetings and expressing concerns about performance “only to the mayor,” according to the code.

However, staff said it often feels like they are vulnerable and “on our own” when council members lob criticisms their way.

But the most that can happen in enforcing the code of conduct is a slap on the wrist through censure, said Councilmember Laura Johnson, who helped draft the code.

“There is no recourse,” she said. “Ultimately it’s going to be up to the public to care enough to protect employees through their vote. That really appears to be the reality.”

In emails obtained by the Herald that mention “code of conduct” over the past two years, council members often remind each other to adhere to the code.

“This is not a pissing match between Adrienne (Fraley-Monillas) and me,” current Council President Vivian Olson wrote in a Sept. 11, 2021 email about Fraley-Monillas allegedly flashing the “loser sign” to a resident who made an unfavorable comment. “This is me following the enforcement section of the code of conduct.”

In March, Buckshnis directly emailed Public Works staff to ask them to come before the council with a stormwater update, criticizing the past Public Works director’s reports to the council for “not really delving into the significant ‘loopholes’ written specifically for Edmonds,” she wrote.

In response, Councilmember Susan Paine asked Buckshnis to avoid sending critical messages directly to employees, and to stop her continued “targeting and bullying of staff.”

Buckshnis countered that Paine’s “passive-aggressive bullying” is a violation of the code of conduct.

“How do you police civility?” Mayor Nelson told The Herald earlier this year. “The code of conduct is one way to do that.”

But right now, staff say, it’s not enough.

Edmonds employees who spoke with The Herald said they want to feel valued, and right now “it seems like neither the executive or legislative leadership values that.”

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; isabella.breda@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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