City manager’s absence overshadows inquiry into charges of hostile workplace

Local events capture the attention of news outlets in Seattle
By Dan Aznoff | Jun 14, 2018

The Mill Creek City Council is defending the extended absence of City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto while ignoring charges filed by city employees that the administrator should be held accountable for an atmosphere that has prompted 30 staffers to leave.

One high-ranking former department head said Polizzotto refused his initial letter of resignation and actually dictated the version that she would accept. The revised letter, he said, included misleading statements that enhanced the city manager’s role as well as the mood of employees in City Hall.

In another case, former City Clerk Kelly Chelin said Polizzotto had her letter of resignation and the city manager’s rebuttal published in a local newspaper. She described the action as a breach of her personnel file as well as a violation of her privacy.

“That is unprecedented,” former Councilmember Donna Michelson told The Beacon. “I had always thought that personnel files were private and confidential.”

Among the employees who left following Polizzotto’s hiring was Josh Roundy, who resigned his job as finance director to take a reduced position in the accounting department for Snohomish County in February. Roundy has since moved on to take a high-ranking position with the finance department with the City of Lake Stevens.

A Public Records Request listed Roundy’s reason for leaving Mill Creek as his “commute.” But he told The Beacon that he was forced out.

“That was certainly the case with me,” Roundy said. “I thought that I had found a home at City Hall in Mill Creek. However, Rebecca created an environment that was not conducive for somebody with a young family.

“She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I did not have a future in Mill Creek.”

Roundy said Polizzotto also rejected his first letter of resignation, and then dictated the letter she would accept. He said he was forced to write a letter that included language that “said good things about her and about the city.”

“It was a pile of BS.”

Mayor Pam Pruitt has a different memory of Roundy’s exit. The mayor said Polizzotto had supported Roundy by promoting him to finance director, a position only one level below city manager.

Four of the 30 former city employees who left after Polizzotto became city manager listed their reason for leaving as retirement, four others listed “dissatisfaction,” two resigned in lieu of termination, eight others left for another job, two were terminated for “Policy Violation or Misconduct” and one cited medical reasons.

More than 20 percent of the vacancies were in the ranks of the city’s police department.

Another member of the senior staff at City Hall – who declined to be named for fear of retribution – said the best hope for Mill Creek would be if the City Council “makes the right decision,” and hires an administrator who does not lead through “intimidation or lying.”

The official said, “There has been anxiety in City Hall since the first day she arrived.” According to the official, a whistleblower complaint filed against Polizzotto earlier this year was followed by “an extremely loud session when Rebecca met with (Councilmember Brian) Holtzclaw behind closed doors.”

Polizzotto reportedly went home sick after the boisterous session in mid-April, and has not been seen in City Hall since.

 

Talk of the town

Talk radio show hosts and TV news outlets in Seattle have joined the coverage of events that has sent ripples through Mill Creek City Hall in the past two weeks.

Reporters from local newspapers as well as a film crew from KOMO TV documented the brief Friday night meeting on June 8 the council called to approve a statement written by and read into the record by Holtzclaw in support of the city manager. The mayor pro tem emphasized the city manager is not being investigated for any wrongdoing.

He also asked his colleagues on the council to avoid any interviews with the press.

The Seattle media outlets and the City Council have been focused on the eight-plus weeks Polizzotto has been home, reportedly recovering from a respiratory infection. Coverage of the city manager’s health sidestepped the whistleblower complaint filed by employees regarding harsh working conditions at City Hall.

Radio personality Dori Monson has entered the fray, engaging listeners of his daily KIRO-FM show in a discussion about Polizzotto’s extended absence.

Monson used clips from news coverage of the Friday night meeting, but mostly seemed obsessed with the city manager’s $172,000 annual salary, repeating numerous times that Polizzotto earns only $2,000 less than Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee.

The only attention given to topics beyond the city manager’s health were delivered in video and audio clips of two active members of the community.

News outlets played clips of former Councilmember Kathy Nielsen expressing concern about the future of a city that lacks proper leadership. Resident Chuck Wright was quoted on both TV and radio describing Polizzotto’s management style as “mean.”

While showing its support for Polizzotto, the council has dismissed concerns about a growing backlog of unfinished city business, including the postponement of the release of a regularly-scheduled state audit of city finances from the first three months of 2018.

Kathleen Cooper, director of communications for the state Auditor, told The Beacon they were working to schedule a meeting with city officials following the audit conducted by the State Auditor.

Cooper said the bulk of their work had been concluded, but the audit wouldn’t be complete until the city officials have a chance to respond to the report.

Councilmember John Steckler said the business of the city has not been delayed by the city manager’s extended absence. Pruitt agreed, adding that she has been shuttling paperwork between City Hall and Polizzotto’s home when signatures are required.

Directors and managers in City Hall disagreed, saying there is a seven-page list of items that cannot be addressed without action by the city’s chief executive. One of those projects is a council-approved contract for new turf and improved lighting at Mill Creek Sports Park.

Things come up over the course of several weeks, former Councilmember Michelson said. She said Polizzotto’s absence has raised more questions about who is actually making the day-to-day decisions at City Hall.

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