LYNNWOOD — City Council member Jim Smith won’t be disciplined by council colleagues in the wake of an investigation that found he discriminated against a Black city employee and expressed “underinformed views on race and social justice issues” made people of color in the community uncomfortable.
Smith got his chance Monday night to publicly dispute the allegations, and as he has before, he condemned the investigation as one-sided and urged another independent review be done of the complaints that sparked the probe.
Smith spoke for about 30 minutes. In that time he argued he did nothing wrong in sending four emails seeking information on where diversity commission applicants live and their voter registration status.
Then the other six council members got their opportunity to respond. Some pushed back. Others want to move on.
By the end of a one-hour discussion, the council balked at reprimanding or censuring the veteran elected official. Nor did it seek to remove Smith as council vice chair as punishment. And no one expressed interest in taking another look at the allegations.
“As a council, we have to face the fact that whatever we think of this investigation, we have this substantiation (of discrimination) by the investigation,” Council President George Hurst said.
Smith’s action after the report was made public, Hurst continued, confirmed for him the report’s conclusion that Smith is unwilling to educate himself about social justice and race issues.
“He has only been interested in defending his actions,” Hurst said. “He has made no statement that indicates an interest into why these allegations were made.”
Hurst said he thought a censure was not appropriate but suggested stripping Smith of his council leadership post. No one made a motion to do so.
Where the council ended up is a commitment to receive training to better understand how their words, actions and demeanor may cause others to be uncomfortable, whether intended or not. They did not set a date or agree on who will conduct the training.
Monday night marked the first council conversation on the report released last month triggered by complaints from Leah Jensen, executive assistant to Mayor Christine Frizzell, and Douglas Raiford, the city’s race and social justice coordinator. Both are Black.
They reportedly filed complaints against Smith on May 9. That same day, the council — including Smith — authorized the investigation in an executive session.
Each employee accused Smith of actions and comments over a period of months they said were discriminatory and racially insensitive, according to the report. The investigator found evidence to substantiate Jensen’s claim but not Raiford’s.
Attorney Kathleen Haggard, of Haggard and Ganson in Bothell, conducted the investigation. She interviewed nine people including Jensen, Raiford, Smith, Frizzell, plus past and present members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission.
Jensen reported the council member tried to direct her work, sought information he was “not entitled to,” and obstructed confirmation of a woman of color to the DEI Commission. She said she felt he was trying to intimidate her, according to the report.
“Smith, a white man, treated Jensen, a Black woman, as if she must answer to him, then publicly criticized her when she did not comply,” Haggard wrote.
First-term council member Josh Bindapraised Jensen.
“Anyone who knows Leah would say that she is an amazing and kindhearted woman who has dedicated so much time and service to the city of Lynnwood,” said Binda, who is Black. “I will not sit up here and be a part of belittling what she has gone through as a Black woman. I do not condone the actions of the subject in the investigation. Instead of being defensive, we should act with humility and accountability.”
Council member Shirley Sutton, who is also Black, offered a different take.
“This is a situation where we are not going to know what really happened and we don’t need to know really,” she said. “Let’s move on. Let’s decide it tonight and be done with this. This is a grown-up situation and we need to act grown up about this.”
Council member Julieta Altamirano-Crosby shared her experience as a Latina joining the council in calling for empathy among all parties.
She said initially she didn’t feel welcome as a council member. She recalled feeling hurt when someone who worked for the city suggested she drop “Altamirano” because it made her name long. But that would mean giving up her identity, she said.
Council member Patrick Decker steered clear of the investigation. He said he wanted to bring in experts to help them better understand how comments and actions can be perceived by others, so as to avoid causing unintended harm.
“What I’d like to do is to focus on moving forward where all of us can improve how we engage with one another and how we engage with others around us,” he said. “I am not sure how to have a healthy, robust exchange with staff at this point when we’re under this cloud.”
Council member Shannon Sessions pointed out the lack of viable response options.
“At times (Smith) can be more egotistical, discourteous, sharp and sometimes startling than I’d like him to be. But I can only control myself,” she said. “As elected officials, there’s very little we can do about other council members.”
Sessions alone provided a modicum of support for Smith’s assertion that he didn’t break any rules when he emailed Jensen.
“While council member Smith’s tone probably wasn’t great or kind, he did follow the procedures we have to gather information,” she said.
As he did at the Sept. 12 council meeting, Smith said his emails were polite and professional, and he directed them to Jensen because she is the contact person for the commission and that is protocol established by the mayor. And like two weeks ago, he criticized Frizzell’s handling of the situation.
Questioning residency and voter registration per city code is being responsible, not racist, he said.
Meanwhile, new details about the investigation emerged Monday.
Hurst said the city’s insurer, not the mayor, sought the probe of Smith’s actions.
Washington Cities Insurance Authority wanted to know if the employees’ claims “could lead to legal action against the city,” he said. It undertook a “pre-defense legal review” resulting in the investigation, which cost $15,537. The authority and city will split the costs.
Jensen, a four-year city employee, did not attend Monday’s meeting.
“I really don’t wish to make any comment,” she said Tuesday morning. “As far as I am concerned the (investigative) process is finished.”
She declined comment when asked if she planned to take legal action.
Before council members dove into the topic, several residents criticized Smith and implored the council to do something.
“I hope to hear the words, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I’m open to learn,’” said Elizabeth Lunsford.
Naz Lashgari said when she served as chair of the diversity commission, she asked for Smith to be removed as liaison to the panel because he was “oblivious to systematic and institutional racism.”
“Tonight we are here again, discussing the same thing,” Lashgari said. “Please hold Jim Smith accountable.”