Little explanation for departures of two Edmonds city employees

EDMONDS — The abrupt departures of two high-ranking city employees is raising questions but offering few answers.

Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper said Wednesday he won’t discuss his recent firing of human resources director Debi Humann and the resignation of his executive assistant, Kimberly Cole, because of potential legal action against the city.

Both employees left the city last Thursday.

“Her resignation was mutually agreed to,” Cooper said of Cole. “Under the advice of my attorney that’s about all I can say about that. There’s a possibility of litigation involving both of them so I really can’t say much more.”

Cooper was appointed to the mayor’s job in the summer of 2010 and faces a tough election battle this fall with former longtime City Councilman Dave Earling.

In addition to her former job in Edmonds, Cole also is a Lynnwood city councilwoman.

The employees’ departures came shortly after someone in city government sent an anonymous tip to the state Auditor’s Office, asking for an investigation of another employee’s time sheets.

Cooper said Wednesday the auditor’s request is not why Humann was fired.

“The state auditor did contact interim finance director Jim Tarte asking to audit, not investigate, the time sheets of one employee,” Cooper said in a written statement over the weekend.

“Ms. Humann and Mr. Tarte both informed me of this call, and I directed them to have the auditor contact me directly and the city would fully cooperate. In fact, I suggested to Mr. Tarte that in the interest of open and effective government we would like the auditor to review our process of completing exception hours records and accompanying policies for all exempt employees. Our policies are a decade old and have warranted review.”

Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the Auditor’s Office, said the agency is looking into the Edmonds matter and expects to make a determination in a couple of months. She declined to provide details.

Humann worked for the city for more than a decade, starting as a receptionist and working her way up to human resources director.

“As I understand compliance with the whistleblower law, if the state requests information you are obligated to provide it,” Humann told The Weekly Herald.

Humann said she is “shocked and upset” regarding her firing. “However, if everybody who goes through this situation had the support I do, this would be a different world. I’m overwhelmed and speechless with the support I’ve been given.”

She said she’s had job offers but hasn’t decided on her immediate future.

“My situation isn’t any more grave than all the other people who are out of work right now,” she said. “It’s difficult patching together health insurance and pulling back on expenses to make sure that house payments are made.”

Cole served as Cooper’s assistant when he was on the Snohomish County Council from 2008 to 2010, then came with him to Edmonds. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Edmonds City Council members said the mayor has the authority to make personnel decisions.

Regarding the request from the Auditor’s Office, “that also sounds to me like the mayor’s responsibility,” Councilman Steven Bernheim said.

Council President Strom Peterson said the council’s role is to make sure city and state policies were followed correctly. He said the council’s power in cases such as these is likely limited to statements of censure and, at the most extreme, a call for resignation.

“I don’t think we know enough right now to take any step,” he said. “You’d have to look at the severity of the infraction.”

Peterson said the situation has been hard on city employees and he’s been talking to them to help with morale.

“Debi’s been a longtime employee and as director of human resources interacted with 99 percent of city staff,” he said.

“Having worked with Debi over the past few years, I’ve consistently found her to be a professional, caring, great city employee. Clearly I don’t have all of the facts in front of me. Either way, my interactions with Debi have always been positive.”

Peterson said the situation has not affected his endorsement of Cooper for mayor.

“I haven’t had a chance to sit down with Mike and go over the details. Whether he can even give me the details, I don’t know,” he said.

Weekly Herald reporter Mina Williams contributed to this story.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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