Council comes under fire for lack of response to Jim Smith investigation

Councilmember Jim Smith Tuesday night talks about the external investigation.

Some Lynnwood residents came forward to expresss their unhappiness with the Lynnwood City Council during its Monday, Sept. 12 business meeting, citing councilmembers’ lack of response to the investigation that was launched into Councilmember Jim Smith a few months ago.

The third-party investigation – which was made public Aug. 19 –  substantiated employee claims made against Smith May 9 regarding racial and sexual discrimination. The council has not yet commented on or discussed possible consequences for Smith’s actions.

“What is the holdup [in reprimanding him]?” asked Lynnwood resident Joy Keren. “Why are you not alarmed that this kind of action is part of your city council?”

Krren urged Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell and Council President George Hurst to publicly condemn Smith’s actions and let Lynnwood residents know that bullying and harassment of any kind will not be tolerated in the city.

“What has been so disappointing to witness are the actions of Jim Smith working incredibly hard to remove any accountability for himself and attempting to diminish the credibility of the brave people who reported the harm that they were experiencing with no real way of knowing that their pain was even going to be acknowledged,” she said. “He worked so hard, in fact, that he had enough time to go on a two-hour talk show and do a full interview but did not have enough time to reflect on his actions or even apologize. Council, I ask you, how are you boldly condemning racism and sexism in our city? How are you taking accountability for your own actions? And how are you keeping your fellow leaders accountable?”

Another Lynnwood resident, Elizabeth Lunsford, also took the podium Monday night to speak about the issue.

“Lynnwood is a mayor-ran city,” Lunsford said. “And I know that makes some people uncomfortable. A lot of people coming up here think, ‘Oh I’m a councilmember, I should have access to everything.’ Councilmembers, you are not an executive branch. The mayor is. The mayor makes the policy. You don’t get access to the list, and you don’t get to harass people because of the policy the executor put in place. You are not the mayor. Deal [with it].”

However, other public commenters sided with Smith on the topic, voicing their concerns about the investigation that was conducted into the matter. Former Lynnwood City Councilmember Ted Hikel said he did his own research and did not hear or see the same things that the investigation reported.

In addition, Hikel said some of the language the investigator used and the questions asked were racist, and he encouraged the council to reconsider the findings.

“I urge the council to uphold a firm commitment to supporting anti-discrimination and anti-sexism standards,” Hikel said. “I don’t know how you move forward with this report. It’s questionable at best, and frankly, I think an embarrassment to the council and to the residents of the City of Lynnwood. You’ve got to do better.”

Many councilmembers also weighed in on the situation, saying they don’t believe any councilmember has ill will toward anyone on city staff.

“I don’t believe any member of this council condones sexism, racism, ageism or any other behavior that denigrates, belittles, excludes or lessens any member of our community,” Councilmember Patrick Decker said. However, when a councilmember is found guilty of such actions, Decker said he expects that the councilmember be punished accordingly.

“I personally do not condone any actions of the subject of the investigation,” added Councilmember Josh Binda. “I stand with the staff members [who filed complaints]. I think we should be held accountable, and we should do better.”

Councilmember Shannon Sessions clarified to the audience that the council did not plan to stay silent on the matter but had not yet had a chance to discuss the situation and findings of the investigation in full detail.

“To answer some of the comments made about us potentially being silent about the investigation: This is the very first time we’ve had the opportunity to talk about this,” Sessions said. “We have been on break, and we are still having an executive session to talk about this. So, I think it’s premature for any of us to put out any major opinions when [we] don’t have all the information yet.”

Smith denies all claims made against him and said the issue should have been dealt with internally before an external investigation was launched.

 “We had earlier people that were attacking me, and other councilmembers in general,” Smith said. “And this was really a one-sided investigation. I wasn’t even contacted until two and a half months after [the original complaint].”

Council President George Hurst said he has had some major concerns about the investigation “but these concerns do not negate the fact that two staff members felt they had to file complaints with our HR department.”

Hurst said Smith was not the only one mentioned during the investigation, but some actions from the city council as a whole were mentioned as well. The council president said he hopes to set aside a Saturday morning in October to bring the city council and boards and commissions leaders together — with the goal of bridging the communication gap that has obviously emerged during the past few months.

In other business, the city council received a preliminary 2023-24 budget report from Lynnwood Finance Director Michelle Meyer.

According to Meyer, the general fund is expected to be around $126 million for the upcoming budget. With that, Meyer said, the city is planning to spend roughly the same amount. However, since this is just a preliminary briefing, the finance director said the actual numbers, which the council will receive in October, are going to look somewhat different.

“We are still actively working on ways to save money and move things around,” Meyer said. “So, the actual numbers are going to be different from these.”

Meyer said the city’s main expenditures going into the next budget year are the streets fund, the Community Justice Center debt service, the recreation center debt service, and the solid waste fund.

Since the budget is still in the preliminary stages, not much information was given, but Meyer said more details will be made available to the council in October. A first public hearing on the budget will be held Sept. 26 before Meyer returns to the council with the final budget on Oct. 10. Meyer hopes to have the budget approved by Nov. 21.

The council also approved the City Center Planned Action Ordinance updates on Monday night. The updates will extend Lynnwood City Center’s growth from roughly 9 million square feet to 12 million square feet.

The council debated the updates for a long time as many did not believe Lynnwood could support such rapid growth in such a small area. But City Center planners stressed the importancce of preparing now for the boom of growth that will arrive in the next 10 years.

“I’m truly really excited for this project that’s going on in the City Center,” Binda said. “It’s going to be very vibrant; it’s going to be an exciting city.”

Councilmember Smith continued to voice his disapproval of the City Center updates, stating the only individuals this growth will benefit are contractors who do not have to live with the consequences of their actions after the housing units are built.

The updates were passed 5-2, with Councilmembers Smith and Decker voting no.

Smith made a motion to postpone the council’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) discussion until the council’s Oct. 10 meeting, which passed unanimously. Councilmember Julieta Altamirano-Crosby also read a proclamation for Hispanic Heritage Month and the meeting ended with an executive session that was closed to the public.

–By Lauren Reichenbach

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