Oregon Cities

Longview’s ousted city manager signals plans to sue over breach of contract

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Officials at the city of Longview will soon find themselves in front of a judge after a month of chaos has them facing multiple lawsuits.

The morass started earlier this month when a trio of Longview city councilors spearheaded the firing of the city’s top administrator, tasked with overseeing the city’s entire operation.

The three councilors — Erik Halvorson, Kalei LaFave and Keith Young — called for a special meeting on two days’ notice. The meeting set City Manager Kris Swanson’s firing as its primary agenda item. According to city councilor Ruth Kendall, three other councilors had just left town on pre-planned trips.

While Swanson’s contract stipulated she could only be fired with a five-vote supermajority, the council did so on a 4-3 vote. She is technically on administrative leave until April 13, at which point she will be terminated. The council has already appointed a replacement, who started Monday.

Swanson is preparing to take legal action. Her attorneys sent official word to Longview’s legal counsel on Thursday demanding the city hold onto all records for an imminent lawsuit.

In an interview, Swanson called her dismissal a “confusing and reckless” effort led by the trio, all of whom were elected last fall. Mayor Samuel Boudreau joined the trio in voting for Swanson’s ouster.

Councilors at the meeting did not provide a clear reason for firing Swanson. They said only that they wanted a change in leadership.

“I don’t understand their decision, and I would say the vast majority of city employees don’t understand it either,” Swanson said. “They’re shocked and searching for answers. I mean, if this council can breach my contract, who knows what other reckless and detrimental decisions they’ll make.”

Boudreau told OPB he believed the city has the legal power to terminate with a simple majority. He said there was no one reason why he agreed to let Swanson go, repeating that he was seeking a “change in management styles.”

“It was that simple,” Boudreau said. “It’s a desire for a new management style.”

Swanson, who was hired a year ago, had so far received strong grades at the city’s top job. A performance review late last summer scored high enough to kick in a raise, bringing her salary to roughly $200,000 a year.

Kendall said there had been plenty of rumors that the new councilors wanted Swanson gone, though she said it wasn’t entirely clear why. But, regardless, she said the city as a whole now looks dysfunctional.

“City staff are the ones that keep the city running,” the city councilor said. “They’re the ones who do the inspections, provide the utilities, fix the roads. We need to have continuity there, or else city government goes into chaos. Nothing will get done.”

One theory that has floated around suggested the four councilors clashed with Swanson over how to manage the city’s contentious Hope Village homeless shelter. The shelter is a tiny home-style outpost that is “low barrier,” meaning it allows pets and couples and doesn’t have strict drug testing.

Boudreau acknowledged that the council does want to see policy changes at the shelter, but didn’t specify.

“Are there changes that could be made to improve management and improve outcomes (at the shelter)? And be able to set more measurable goals? Absolutely,” Boudreau said. “But no one staff member was in the way of that. I don’t foresee Hope Village going anywhere.”

Meanwhile, three private citizens are suing to prevent Swanson’s firing from taking effect. Last week, John Melink, Thomas Samuels and former city councilor Mike Wallin filed an injunction that would have her reinstated.

The suit argues that Swanson’s firing is a direct result of “blatant” violations of Washington’s laws that require politicians to plan and make decisions during public meetings.

The lawsuit alleges that multiple councilors had formed a de facto subcommittee without public knowledge to orchestrate Swanson’s firing and the appointment of her replacement, former Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha.

Duscha, who officially became interim city manager on Monday, did not respond to request for comment. He will be paid $176,000 a year, according to The Daily News in Longview.

“The discussion, deliberation and consideration of the employment contract – and all its terms – should have happened in an open public meeting,” Wallin said Monday.

Duscha retired as police chief in 2020 and had publicly supported LaFave’s campaign for city council, the newspaper said.

The lawsuit seeking an injunction is set to have a hearing Wednesday.

Boudreau, the mayor, denied having any knowledge of councilors violating Washington’s public meetings laws.

“I was never party to any meetings that violated the open public meetings act,” he said. “I was not a part of that. Nor do I have any knowledge of that happening.”

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