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News / Northwest

Longview fires city manager, names former police chief replacement during chaotic meeting

By Brennen Kauffman, The Daily News
Published: March 14, 2024, 8:27pm

LONGVIEW — The new conservative bloc on the Longview City Council fired City Manager Kris Swanson without cause Wednesday night amid a firestorm of controversy and pushback during the special meeting.

The council voted 4-3 to terminate her contract without cause in 30 days. A second resolution on the agenda suspended Swanson with pay for the remainder of her term, effectively opening up her job for the appointment of an interim city manager.

Voting to fire her were by Mayor Spencer Boudreau and new members of the council Erik Halvorson, Kalei LaFave and Keith Young.

Swanson was vocally defended by the other three councilmembers, who pleaded with their counterparts to reconsider, slow the process or speak to a single attorney before breaking Swanson’s contract.

The decision could drag Longview into a legal battle over breaking Swanson’s contract, which —approved just a year ago — specifies that a five-vote supermajority is needed to terminate her without cause. The city is required to pay Swanson six months worth of her $179,000 annual contract, plus six months of insurance and her remaining vacation benefits.

MaryAlice Wallis called the decision “the worst thing I’ve had to vote on in my entire council career.”

But Kalei LaFave said: “There’s a reason there is a lot of the community who feels that a fresh start would be right.”

The City Council immediately went into discussions about whom to appoint as the interim city manager. The same 4-3 majority tapped retired Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha, breaking from the city’s history and potentially state law by not advancing a current city department leader.

Longview’s city attorney, Dana Gigler, pointed out that the state law explicitly directed cities to name a “qualified administrative officer of the city,” likely meaning a current employee.

The last-minute meeting played out before a packed City Council chamber that was deeply divided but narrowly supported Swanson. Twenty of the 34 commenters who spoke during the termination vote asked the city to keep Swanson or at least pump the brakes on the process. The applause and laughter that regularly interrupted the meeting was louder from Swanson’s defenders.

Swanson’s critics raised a series of complaints that had been lobbed against the city for nearly two years, from hiring decisions Swanson made in the last year to her role in creating Hope Village and an employment discrimination lawsuit from before she was named city manager. (The city settled the suit without admitting liability and paid out $104,000.)

“There’s a lot of emotion there and people who are supportive of Kris, but that’s at the personal level. At the policy level I’d say she is a complete failure,” said Larry Crosby, a Castle Rock resident who regularly attends Longview’s council meetings.

The residents defending Swanson compared the new council to Thelma and Louise driving the city off a cliff, or Oppenheimer triggering a nuclear option.

The one thing both sides shared in common was anger at the city for dishonesty and a lack of transparency.

Longview resident Robin Pope had watched some council meetings from home, but Wednesday was her first time attending in person. Pope said she couldn’t believe the city would fire Swanson without cause and came to get a better explanation.

“I watched the last council meeting. They were squabbling like junior high students getting at each other. I just want to know the truth,” Pope said.

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Legal questions

Hugh Spitzer, municipal law professor at the University of Washington, said the state law allowing city managers to be fired with a majority vote likely supercede the contract details.

“Washington has a history of support for majority rule, so in all likelihood the courts would find that whether you like the outcome or not, the majority has the decision here,” Spitzer said.

On the other hand, Spitzer said that Swanson’s contract could still be legally binding and allow her to sue the city for damages.

In an interview earlier on Wednesday, Swanson told The Daily News that removing her would likely cause “considerable liability” for the city.

“Just because they vote on something doesn’t mean it’s legal. They can make decisions all day that aren’t in the best interest of the city,” Swanson said.

Wallis and Angie Wean both canceled trips out of state at the last moment to attend the council meeting in person while Ruth Kendall attended the meeting by Zoom.

Mayor Boudreau and the rest of the council knew they would be out of town before scheduling the special meeting for Wednesday, as Wean had previously asked to be excused from Thursday’s council meeting because of the travel plans.

Wean and Wallis asked LaFave to recuse herself from voting to name Duscha as city manager due to possible conflicts of interest. Duscha had endorsed Kalei LaFave during her Longview City Council campaign last year.

Duscha was not at the meeting Wednesday night to accept the offer. When reached by The Daily News during the hiring debate around 9 p.m., Duscha’s wife told the paper he was asleep.

City spokesperson Angela Abel said Duscha would not be at City Hall to discuss a contract until Thursday afternoon, leaving it unclear who was at the helm on Thursday morning. Duscha’s contract for the job will need to be approved by the City Council at a public meeting.

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