MLT City Council agrees to reprimand councilmember after employee complaint

Councilmember Seaun Richards
Councilmember Seaun Richards

The Mountlake Terrace City Council voted Tuesday night to issue a written reprimand to fellow councilmember Seaun Richards after a city employee complained she felt uncomfortable when the councilmember spent 30 minutes in her office discussing his personal life.

The council had started to discuss the complaint during an executive session Tuesday night, but returned to public session to continue the discussion in an open forum at Richards’ request.

Following a lengthy debate, the council voted 5-0 to issue the written reprimand, with Richards recusing himself and Councilmember Bryan Wahl absent.

The reprimand, to be officially drafted by City Attorney Greg Schrag and presented for approval at the council’s Sept. 17 business meeting, is based on a complaint by Human Resources Management Analyst Leslie Choate. According to the public discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting, Choate complained to City Manager Scott Hugill that Richards made her feel uncomfortable when he came into her office, closed the door and had a 30-minute conversation about his pending divorce.

Hugill said that as part of the complaint, Choate said she “does not want an apology or any contact with Councilmember Richards.”

Richards told the council that he initiated the conversation because Choate was a regular customer at the Mountlake Terrace restaurant he owns, Red Onion Burgers, and he wanted her to know why she wouldn’t be seeing his wife during her next visit there.

Richards also told the council that he had asked Choate for permission to enter her office and also asked if he could close the door because of the private nature of the conversation.

Hugill told the council that Richards’ actions violated a 2016-17 city council directive to him that restricts councilmembers’ access to city employees. Under that rule, councilmembers are not allowed to access the “behind the counter” employee area of City Hall unescorted.

“Anytime a councilmember wants to go behind the counter, it’s announced, either with a phone call to me or Virginia (Olson, city clerk),” Hugill explained to the council Tuesday night. “We will make sure to meet a councilmember in the hallway or be ready for them so they are not unescorted.”

Ricahrds had come in to pay a bill related to the 3rd of July festivities, which the councilmember for the past three years has organized on behalf of his restaurant’s Cheeseburger Babies Foundation. Hugill said that Richards was with him as he looked for a receipt booklet, then the councilmember stopped at the city clerk’s office “and I assumed he was on his way out,” Hugill said.

Instead, Richards said he stopped by Choate’s office. “I asked if she had some time and she said, ‘a couple of minutes,'” Richards recalled. He said he then “asked if I could shut the door because it’s a personal thing and she said it was fine.”

“She did not indicate she was uncomfortable,” Richards said. “If I’ve offended her, I’m totally sorry. I didn’t feel like I offended anybody and if she would have said something I would have gotten up and left.”

Councilmember Doug McCardle said that while Richards didn’t violate the council’s rule of not accessing City Hall’s “behind the counter” area without permission, he did take up an employee’s time with personal business.

“It was using up city work time behind closed doors,” McCardle said. “I just don’t think it was an appropriate place for that conversation to happen. And that was part of the complaint.”

City Attorney Greg Schrag noted that under Washington State law, “there’s a division of responsibility between the legislative and administrative branch and the statute is pretty clear not to interfere with the administration. Using an employee’s time on matters that are not germane to the city’s business can be a potential violation of that statute,” he said.

Mayor Jerry Smith initially suggested that Richards, who is in his second term on the council, be issued a verbal reprimand. Councilmember McCardle disagreed, stating that the matter was serious enough to warrant a written reprimand.

Councilmember Rick Ryan acknowledged that Richards “has been under stress recently and I know that under stress we sometimes don’t make good choices. I don’t see any reason to go on with this over and over and over because everything’s up front and clear. We just have to figure out what to do.”

Councilmember Laura Sonmore noted that “the word uncomfortable to a woman means something different than to a man. If we police ourselves in strong fashion we can show that we’ve taken this seriously,” she said.

Sonmore suggested that the council continue the discussion to a future meeting so that they could further consider the matter and also so the city attorney could provide more details. She made a motion to that effect, but it died for lack of a second.

Schrag explained that the council had four options regarding the complaint. One of them is to do nothing. The others include issuing a verbal reprimand, a written reprimand or a written censure, the latter of which involves stronger language than a reprimand.

Councilmember Ryan made a motion — approved by a 5-0 vote — to issue a written reprimand stating that “Councilmember Richards’ conduct and behavior violated the acceptable standards of the city council.”

The next step is for the city attorney to draft the reprimand, which will be reviewed in open session during the council’s next business meeting on Monday, Sept. 17.

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