City staff interviewed over latest whistleblower complaint

Cease and desist order prohibits city staff from discussing grievance against city manager
By Dan Aznoff | Aug 02, 2018

Employees of Mill Creek have reportedly gone through multiple rounds of interviews regarding accusations that City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto created a hostile work environment inside City Hall. But they are apparently under an order that prohibits them from discussing the matter.

One unnamed staffer confirmed that follow-up interviews have been conducted with selected employees into accusations that Polizzotto pulled the city out of financial disaster “on the backs of loyal members of the city staff.”

City employees told The Beacon they were unified in their understanding that they could suffer “severe financial penalties and professional retribution” for defying the gag order. A letter was reportedly issued by the attorney who represents the embattled city manager.

Everett attorney Joel Nichols replied to a written inquiry with a statement that indicated the city manager had no knowledge of the cease and desist order.

Former Councilmember Mary Kay Voss said she was “speechless” after pouring through more than 600 pages of public records that documented communications between Polizzotto and members of the city staff.

“Members of the city staff are suffering from symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) as a result of the management style Rebecca used to control City Hall,” Voss told The Beacon. “Four of them came up to me and asked me to help save them.”

More than 30 city employees have either retired or found positions elsewhere since Polizzotto became city manager in July 2015. The city was dealing with a multi-million-dollar deficit at the time.

Statements submitted with the complaint against Polizzotto earlier his year are public record.

In the complaint, Police Chief Greg Elwin said he appreciated the city manager’s efforts to reform the city’s organizational structure, but wrote that he decided to “share my concerns in hopes that the toxic environment in City Hall can change.”

In her complaint, Finance Director Peggy Lauerman wrote that she grew uneasy when she was asked to assist state auditors with the paper trail. Lauerman said she rejected Polizzotto’s request to send detailed receipts to the city manager’s personal email rather than her city email account that is subject to public scrutiny.

In reviewing the city manager’s expense reports, Lauerman said she was struck by “falsified and/or implausible detail.”

The finance director and the police chief both said they felt uncomfortable when Polizzotto allegedly offered each of them $5,000 bonuses.

Councilmember Mike Todd said allegations were false that he had somehow independently OK'd bonuses for Elwin and Lauerman. He told the Beacon in a written response that, “I did not approve and/or authorize $5,000 bonus(es) for any members of the city staff."

The police chief and the city’s director of Communications and Marketing, Joni Kirk, both accused Polizzotto of hampering city cooperation with the non-profit Mill Creek Police Foundation.

Human Resource Director Laura Orlando took the city manager’s behavior more personally.

“She regularly exhibits dishonesty, manipulation and selfishness,” Orlando wrote in an April memo to the city attorney. “I would characterize her behavior as disrespectful of others, verbally abusive and purposefully intimidating. She is the clearest example of a workplace bully that I have ever seen.”

Records indicate that Kirk sent an email in May asking City Attorney Scott Missall why the council didn’t approve hiring an independent investigator during a public meeting.

Missall, who is contracted from an outside law firm, clarified that he retained the investigator. It wasn’t a council decision.

“I have the obligation, and personally want to assure, an impartial and thorough investigation of the issues,” he replied.

Contacted after the regular council meeting on July 24, Missall confirmed that all personnel contracts are required to be approved during an open session of a council meeting.

He did not explain how the contract for Interim City Manager Bob Stowe or his salary had been approved without a vote or discussion during a public session of the council.
Stowe is on a short-term contract to serve as the city’s chief executive officer. He began his duties on June 25.

Voss added that she has identified eight separate cases of the City Council violating the Open Meetings Act since March of this year. If found guilty of the charges, she said, each member of the council would be required to write a check to the state for $7,500.

There is also no public record of the council contracting with an attorney to conduct interviews with members of the city staff and return her findings to the council.

City employees identified the lawyer who conducted the interviews as Seattle attorney Rebecca Dean. The sole practitioner with over 30 years of experience in human resources and employment law declined to comment on the results of her extended dialogues with city staff in Mill Creek.

Voss hopes the council votes to dismiss Polizzotto and then find a way to remove Pam Pruitt from her role as mayor. Voss accused her former colleague of defending the actions of the city manager and replicating her “obnoxious behavior” with employees in City Hall.

“Employees will never trust the council again if they do not remove Pam Pruitt from her position as mayor,” Voss said. “Getting a good city manager would be a good place to start.”

The Everett attorney hired by Polizzotto to defend her against accusations of misuse of city-issued credit cards also declined to weigh in, except to say that the results of the interviews were delivered to the city attorney on June 11 and to the City Council one day later.

“Mrs. Polizzotto was not advised as to when the complaints were initially filed,” attorney Joel Nichols wrote in a reply to questions submitted by The Beacon. “They (the results of the interviews) were not provided to Mrs. Polizzotto until after the investigation was completed, and then only at the request of her attorney.”

A report by the state Auditor issued in June focused on the city manager’s use of city-issued credit cards, specifically alcohol purchases and meals with no obvious public purpose.

Detailed receipts showed approximately two dozen charges for cocktails and other alcoholic drinks on the city manger’s city-issued credit card. Records indicate she charged a $158.14 tab for a steak dinner on the card, along with room service during conferences where meals were supposed to be provided.

Records indicate that Polizzotto did pay back many of the charges, but only after state auditors began digging through city records to take a close look at her spending habits. In at least one case, the reimbursement came nearly two years after a dinner charged to the city in 2016 at a Mill Creek restaurant.

Another city employee who declined to be identified told The Beacon that important projects have been delayed since the city manager was last seen in City Hall in mid-April. Things are beginning to get back to normal, according to the staffer, since Stowe became interim city manager six weeks ago.

According to public records, meetings of many of the boards and commissions needed to review projects and make recommendations to the council were postponed or canceled by Polizzotto prior to her extended absence. The Planning Commission has met only once or twice this year.

The city manager reportedly used her own sick time and vacation days to cover the first few weeks of her absence. The council placed Polizzotto on paid administrative leave on June 19 “to address issues,” according to another member of the city staff.

The 45-day leave was scheduled to expire on Aug. 3. There has not been an item placed on the council agenda to discuss or extend the leave. However, as one employee pointed out, the council scheduled an unusual executive session on Thursday, Aug. 2, to discuss “personnel matters and pending litigation.”

A spokesperson for the city indicated they have not heard if, or when, Polizzotto is expected to return to work.

Councilmembers Todd and Jared Mead did issue short statements when the council emerged from its second executive session at the regular meeting on Tuesday, July 24.

“What we are doing is not a secret. We want the residents to know that we are attempting to work out the situation,” Mead told The Beacon later that week. “These things take time. We are working toward a satisfactory resolution.”

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