Hudson residents want independent review of city manager's conduct

Some citizens accuse Jane Howington of unethical behavior

Phil Keren
Kent Weeklies
Hudson City Manager Jane Howington delivers her annual State of the City address in January. A group of residents recently filed a complaint with the International City/County Management Association in which they allege Howington has violated some tenets of the ICMA's Code of Ethics.

HUDSON — A group of residents want a professional organization for city and county managers to determine whether the city manager has engaged in unethical conduct.

A Sept. 21 letter signed by 20 residents was sent to Marc Ott, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based International City/County Management Association (ICMA), requesting that ICMA's executive board assess whether City Manager Jane Howington violated ICMA's Code of Ethics.

Ed Stein, one of the residents who signed the complaint letter, said he learned Oct. 1 that ICMA received the document.

"It is time to establish whether or not the city manager was side-stepping requirements for open meetings and campaigning for council candidates who align with her personal, political or management viewpoints," said Stein.

A message left for Jessica Cowles with ICMA was not returned by press time.

Howington, a member of ICMA who has served as Hudson city manager since August 2014, said she "had no knowledge" of the complaint, but said she and her staff are "very committed to the good of the entire community."

"We strive to maintain compliance with our Board of Directors, in this case the City Council (as a body)," said Howington. "We have an excellent staff, an excellent community that is in excellent health and we are all dedicated to maintaining this community status. If there is disagreement on issues in the community, we should be able to hold a civil discourse on whatever that issue is. In the difficult environment of 2020, let us practice working together for the community benefit."

Stein said residents filed the complaint after city leaders did not respond to concerns that citizens raised about Howington's conduct nearly a year ago.

In their complaint, the residents said they reviewed emails among government officials after the advisory vote on Downtown Phase II failed in May 2019. After reviewing these communications, the residents wrote they believed Howington was allowing city staff to campaign for Phase II using taxpayer funded resources, backing candidates for council, limiting public input and "actively finding ways to circumvent the state’s open meeting requirements for public bodies."

The residents argued Howington has violated four of the ICMA Code of Ethics' Tenets.

In their complaint, the group presented about 40 pages of emails from Howington, city staff and council members.

Howington emailed a communications firm leader and some city officials in July 2019 and said there was an ad in the Hub-Times "from the anti-everything group." The subject line of her email was "It appears our negative group is beginning their assault on council." She was referring to the group that opposed the Phase II ballot issue.

The residents said they felt these emails and others showed Howington was "failing to uphold Tenet 3 (Integrity and Public Confidence)."

The residents offered examples of how they believed Howington violated the Political Activity Tenet:

• In March 2019, after seeing the Phase II ballot issue ads set to appear in the Hub, Howington emailed city spokesperson Jody Roberts to say the ads "need a big word VOTE on MAY 7th!”

• In April 2019, when directing a resident who wanted a "Vote Yes" sign to the pro-Phase II group leader, Roberts told the citizen she was "glad to hear you want to put up a Vote Yes yard sign.”

• After being invited to a council candidate's "meet the candidate" party, Howington wrote in October 2019: “Thanks for the invite and of course I am very supportive. I also have to be careful not to be involved in any one individuals [sic] campaign so I don’t attend any of the sessions.”

• In September 2019, Economic Development Director Jim Stifler responded to an email from a resident who sought advice on campaign literature for a council candidate. Stifler writes: “I will comment in next 48 hours. Lots of easy improvements.”

The residents contend the handling of a park survey was evidence of Howington violating the ICMA Tenets of Serving the People's Interests and Communication with Citizens.

The residents noted Howington has a standing Friday meeting to review council's agenda. In a September 2019 email to then-Councilor Dennis Hanink, Howington wrote: "I also believe members of Council know they can attend these sessions though we try to keep the attendance under a quorum."

If less than a majority of council members attend, the city is not required to open the meeting to the public under the state's open meetings laws.The residents noted a discussion of a park survey at a Friday meeting "resulted in limitations on the scope of the survey." In a September 2019 email, Assistant City Manager Frank Comeriato told the park board Howington and council did not want to include questions about a potential rec center and called for excluding questions that did not pertain to current park offerings. 

According to ICMA, if the group's executive director cannot determine whether the alleged conduct violates the Code of Ethics, he will refer the issue to ICMA's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). If the executive director determines the complaint may be a violation of the Code of Ethics, a copy of the complaint will be sent to Howington, who will have 30 days to respond in writing. After that, the executive director will refer the case to the CPC. 

Possible penalties for violating the Code of Ethics are: private censure; public censure, membership suspension; revocation of membership privileges; and revocation of the member's ICMA credential.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.