No penalty, so far, for Lynnwood council member accused of racism

The council took no action on a report saying Jim Smith discriminated against a Black employee. He maintains his innocence.

Jim Smith (City of Lynnwood)

Jim Smith (City of Lynnwood)

LYNNWOOD — City Council members are in no hurry to respond to a report accusing one of their colleagues of racist and sexist behavior toward a key member of Mayor Christine Frizzell’s staff.

And neither is the mayor.

Monday night marked the first meeting the City Council and mayor discussed the investigation released last month that found council member Jim Smith discriminated against the mayor’s executive assistant, a Black woman, and his “underinformed views on race and social justice issues” makes people of color and other minorities “frustrated and uncomfortable.”

City leaders were expected to hash it out in an extended executive session at the end of the council’s regular meeting. When it concluded, they departed without taking action or commenting on what they discussed.

However, earlier in the meeting, in the period reserved for council member comments, Smith denied behaving improperly. And as he has since the report came out Aug. 19, he criticized Frizzell’s handling of the situation and the investigator’s conduct of the probe.

“The mayor should have been doing something to get all these people together to deal with this and we could have brought this forward as opposed to getting into this investigation … which is really a one-sided investigation,” he said. “This is not the end of this.”

Two Black city employees filed complaints against Smith, who is white, on May 9. That same day, the council — including Smith — authorized the investigation at the behest of the mayor.

Leah Jensen, the mayor’s executive assistant, and Douglas Raiford, the city’s race and social justice coordinator, each 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.

In an email after Monday night’s meeting, Smith said if one reads the investigation and his response to the findings, they will “realize that the report was very flawed.”

“That said, I feel bad for Leah as a person. The administration should have handled it more professionally and with sensitivity,” he said in the email. “No one, especially me, wants someone to feel bad or hurt.”

Frizzell has been silent on the findings and made no statements regarding the complaints and alleged mistreatment of her staff.

Christine Frizzell

Christine Frizzell

“The council voted to have the investigation. It is up to council to decide the next step,” she said.

She also declined to answer questions on why she, or a member of the city Human Resources Department, did not meet with Smith before ordering an investigation.

Meanwhile, several council members broached the subject Monday in the period reserved for council comments.

“I personally do not condone any actions of the subject in the investigation,” said council member Joshua Binda, who is Black. “I stand with the staff members. I think we should be held accountable. We can do better.”

Council member Patrick Decker read a statement.

“I don’t believe any member of this council condones sexism, racism, ageism or any other behavior that denigrates, belittles … or lessens any member in our community,” he said.

If such behavior is “established by fact and confirmed by investigation” it should be addressed clearly and directly by the council, he said.

Council member Shannon Sessions urged patience, noting that Monday was the “very first time we’ve had an opportunity” to talk about the report.

“It’s premature for any of us to put out any major opinions when they don’t have all the information yet,” she said. “There’s more info coming.”

George Hurst, the council president, isn’t looking to wait.

“I, too, have some major concerns about the investigative report. Those concerns cannot mitigate the fact that two staff members felt they had to file complaints. We have to deal with that,” he said.

Hurst noted the report also identified actions by the council some community members viewed as discriminatory. He proposed a meeting involving council members and city commissioners to explore why some residents feel the elected leaders are not supportive.

“We really need to figure out some common ground,” he said. “We are not talking on the same level.”

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. Emails were reviewed and eight council meeting recordings were watched.

Smith was interviewed July 21. He submitted written responses to the allegations Aug. 1, which are referenced in the report but not included. He has provided them to reporters.

The report portrays Smith as one who doesn’t understand how his words and actions are upsetting, angering and hurtful to people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Jensen alleged Smith tried to direct her work, sought information he was “not entitled to,” and obstructed confirmation of a woman of color to the city’s diversity commission. She said she felt he was trying to intimidate her, according to the report.

The investigator cites four emails Smith sent to Jensen as evidence of him overstepping his authority. Those emails requested information about applicants for the commission, some of which was not available to the general public.

“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.

In Monday’s council meeting, Smith said he directed the emails to Jensen because she is the contact person for the commission and that is protocol established by the mayor.

“Everything was business-like, polite and to the point,” he said.

Monday also marked the first opportunity for residents to voice their views on the report.

Joy Karen lambasted Smith for not apologizing and council members for not denouncing his actions. It seemed, she said, they feel comfortable “allowing this person to keep doing what they’re doing.”

“It is saddening that there is no clear disdain of the actions of Jim Smith,” she said. “What is the hold up? Why are you not alarmed that this kind of action is part of your city council?”

But former longtime City Council member Ted Hikel contended the report contained inaccurate statements and drew questionable conclusions.

“I do not intend to convict or exonerate the subject of the investigation,” he said. “I urge the Council to uphold a firm commitment to supporting anti-discrimination and anti-sexism standards. I don’t know how you move forward with this report that is questionable at best and frankly an embarrassment to the council and the residents of the City of Lynnwood.”

Herald reporter Isabella Breda contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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