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Auburn City Council censures Haugen for ignoring rules of conduct

Councilmember Virginia Haugen defended herself against the charges at the City Council meeting Monday.  - Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter
Councilmember Virginia Haugen defended herself against the charges at the City Council meeting Monday.
— image credit: Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

It had never happened before in the 118-year history of the City of Auburn.

But by a six-to-one margin, the Auburn City Council voted Monday to censure one of its own, Virginia Haugen, for failing to comply with council rules and procedures.

While the official statement of disapproval represents a stinging reprimand from Haugen's colleagues, she keeps her seat. Observers expect Haugen, elected in 2007, to seek reelection this November.

"I don't think any of us are taking any pleasure in it, we certainly wish it were not necessary," Councilman Rich Wagner said before Monday's vote.

The Committee on Council Operations, comprised of three senior members of the Council — Wagner, Sue Singer and Nancy Backus — decided March 29 to pass the censure resolution on to the full Council. The committee is responsible for a number of areas related to how the Council does its job. Part of that involves how Council members interact in the meetings, how they interact with citizens, how they do their job in general.

It is responsible also for dealing with violations of the rules and procedures. It investigated Haugen for a year.

"For her to effectively do her job as a Councilmember, that is, to act in the best interests of the citizens of Auburn," the resolution states, "she should not make personal statements and contacts that damage those interests by increasing the risk of higher litigation exposure and potential costs to the City."

Haugen defended herself against the charges, most of them centered on her belief that she should be allowed to make personal statements and contacts, without other people linking them to her public role.

She questioned the evidence against her, which she claimed the City had not provided.

"When this committee has to quote a newspaper to censure me, that sends up a red flag," Haugen began. "What I would like to do here is simply defend myself against allegations that are not true."

Wagner said the information had been the subject of numerous meetings, including the most recent, where the subcommittee presented her with a 15-page packet of all the charges and a stack of e-mail supporting the allegations. She got upset, and left after only three of the accusations had been read.

A look at the charges

Here are the six charges and Haugen's answers:

• Haugen testified without City authorization at a March 3, 2010 City of Kent Hearing Examiner hearing on the Verdana development on Lea Hill, at a time when the City was involved in a lawsuit with its developers. The Kent Reporter newspaper quoted her as saying: "This development will have a significant impact environmentally," potentially weakening the City's position in the lawsuit, according to the resolution.

That matter having been the subject of several closed-door executive sessions prior to that hearing, Wagner said Haugen should have been aware of the sensitive legal nature of the Verdana project.

"While she did not purport to be stating the position of the City Council but rather her own personal opinion, her statement might be viewed by others as reflecting her role as a Council member," the resolution states.

Haugen responded that she had spoken at three such meetings in Kent, offering her own views as part of a citizen's group, not as a City Council member. She claimed the Verdana lawsuit had nothing to do with the environmental issues she talked about at the hearing, and any information in her testimony she  had gleaned from handouts supplied by the City of Kent. She denied that she had shared any information from executive sessions.

• City Development Services Manager Jeff Tate said he had received a call from a businessman in 2010 who had applied for permits to build a hotel in south Auburn. The man claimed that he had received calls from several hotel operators, telling him that Haugen had called one local hotel operator to encourage her to oppose the project.

"I spoke with one woman who I believe owns a motel in Auburn, I told her of some information I had regarding the building of a new motel in Auburn," Haugen said. "I never encouraged anyone to oppose anything. I did find out in speaking with that motel owner that she knew nothing of plans for someone to build a new motel in a very, very good location in Auburn that this woman believed might hurt her ability to turn a profit. I do not know who she spoke to about it. I did not ask her to oppose anything."

• Haugen communicated with a citizen in 2010 who had complained to the City that the 8th and R Street Northeast Street traffic light installation would reduce the safety of her travel, implying, according to the resolution, that "this citizen might file a lawsuit, and Councilmember Haugen was encouraging of the suit."

Haugen said she had responded to an e-mail from the woman and she shared those concerns.

"I did not discuss safety matters with anyone, my only position on that project has been about the inconvenience of people...who would not be able to make left-hand turns anymore, and that has been a huge concern for people who live in the area," Haugen said.

• In 2010 Haugen violated the City Council executive session privileged communications regarding waste collection contract negotiations in a way that was likely to interfere with those negotiations or possibly lead to a lawsuit.

"A gentleman called me on a Sunday talked to me about contract issues, and I was very surprised. I don't know where he got his information, but he did talk to me. And I said to him — and I have said for at least 20 years — that I have always believed that these contracts should go to bid, but I am talking about a lot of contracts in the City of Auburn. I believe in the bid process, and it's appropriate for us to use it when we can," Haugen said.

• Largely ignored mentoring by deputy mayor Singer with regard to improving her council member skills and has refused to be certified in required emergency management training, as all other Council members have done.

Haugen said she had undergone extensive training at Boeing years ago in emergencies, served on safety committees and did not need more schooling in CPR evacuation procedures and the like.

"I know about emergency management, and if somebody really believes that I am going to glean a lot of information from taking this class, all over again, fine with me," Haugen said.

She asked where she is required to take such classes.

Singer said that Council procedures require it, and that what Councilmembers learn is not about helping people, it is specifically aimed at instructing Council members in how to do their jobs as City leaders in an emergency, for example how to organize and coordinate with other cities across the region.

"We have a job that's very unique and doesn't have anything to do with what you're describing,  and it concerns me that you are not aware of what to do in the event of an emergency," Singer said.

• In 2009 with a property owner the City's plans for acquisition of his property for street improvement at the corner of 8th Street North and Harvey Road, undermining the City's real estate purchase negotiations.

Haugen said six people had approached her with concerns about a street project, and she shared her concerns.

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