Mill Creek’s new mayor breaks silence over city manager

The City Council said Michael Ciaravino is meeting expectations, but some areas need improvement.

Mill Creek’s new mayor, Brian Holtzclaw. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Mill Creek’s new mayor, Brian Holtzclaw. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

MILL CREEK — City Manager Michael Ciaravino has committed to fill key positions on his leadership team and improve communication with other staff, residents and the City Council, according to Mill Creek’s new mayor.

Mayor Brian Holtzclaw publicly outlined these priorities on the heels of Ciaravino’s first annual performance evaluation, breaking the council’s silence on controversy over whether Ciaravino is fit for the job.

Those doubts recently culminated when a union representing many of Mill Creek’s employees voted to declare no confidence in Ciaravino, citing his recent decision to lay off longtime staffers while reportedly showing favoritism to those in his inner circle.

In the four-page performance review, the council acknowledged that morale is low at City Hall and encouraged Ciaravino to work on other issues. But council members stopped short of concluding the city manager is failing.

“Michael’s first year had numerous challenges, many of which were entirely unanticipated — for example, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our city’s operations and the economy,” Holtzclaw, who was recently selected to replace longtime Mayor Pam Pruitt after her abrupt resignation, said at the Sept. 8 council meeting.

“Overall, given these challenges — and Michael having to move across the country and become familiar with our city, our staff and the region — the majority of the council felt Michael is meeting our expectations, just over a year on the job,” the new mayor said.

The council then voted 5-0, with Councilman John Steckler abstaining, to modify Ciaravino’s contract to include an additional five days of personal time off.

Since the vote, the city has announced that Councilman Mike Todd has resigned from the council to join the city manager’s staff as director of public works and developmental services.

With the budget shortfall that the city is facing due to the coronavirus crisis, the council didn’t feel it was appropriate to give Ciaravino a raise, Holtzclaw said.

Michael Ciaravino

Michael Ciaravino

Steckler told his colleagues he was abstaining from the vote because he disagreed with the final evaluation.

“I do not have confidence in this city manager continuing, and I had a number of examples of decisions made and results that occurred that I brought to the council,” Steckler later told The Daily Herald. He declined to elaborate, citing concerns about Ciaravino’s privacy.

The city manager did not respond to an email seeking comment on results of the evaluation.

In the written review, which the city provided to the Herald in response to a records request, the council asked that Ciaravino meet more often with council members and engage more frequently with the media and the public. He should also become more accessible to staff and “put additional effort into building trust” with his employees, says the review.

The council emphasized the importance that Ciaravino hire “a strong team of department managers” to fill other critical posts, including the position of police chief and human resources help.

Hiring Todd was one step in the right direction, Holtzclaw said in a city press release issued on Wednesday.

Todd, who has served on the council since 2005, has experience in business and program development, marketing and management, according to the release.

“As a resident of Mill Creek for longer than it has been a City, and as a passionate advocate for operational excellence, I felt it was time to roll up my sleeves and apply my management skills and knowledge of the community to improve our City,” Todd, who holds degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, said in a written statement.

The council now must fill the seats left open by Todd and the former mayor.

Mill Creek is accepting letters of interest for one of those council seats. Applications are due at 5 p.m. on Thursday. For more details, visit cityofmillcreek.com.

The city’s previous public works director, Gina Hortillosa, submitted her resignation on May 29 and worked her last day on June 19, she said in an email to The Herald. She did not say why she stepped down.

City leaders are also celebrating the return of Mill Creek Finance Director Jeff Balentine, who recently rejoined the staff. Balentine resigned last month, citing “philosophical differences” with city leadership.

Balentine said he will at least work until the city has approved a 2021-2022 budget, spent federal coronavirus relief funding and completed a routine audit that kicks off in October.

“I do see some good positive things going on, so that’s why I’m back,” he said. “If we keep moving forward in this positive way, I’m hoping it’s long-term.”

In Ciaravino’s written review, council members also called on the city manager to better define the role of his chief of staff, saying the new position isn’t yet living up to the expectations council members had when they agreed to fund it.

The position is now held by Grace Lockett — one of two interim employees that Ciaravino hired after working with them at past jobs in other states.

Former employees and city residents have raised concerns about the pair of temporary employees, citing Ciaravino’s decision to keep them on staff while handing longtime staffers pink slips.

Residents questioned the necessity of the chief-of-staff position in an Aug. 24 letter to the council that was later published in the Mill Creek Beacon. The letter poses other questions about the city’s finances; it’s signed by roughly three dozen people.

In its review of Ciaravino, the council also underscored another problem that has caught the public’s eye: the city’s mounting legal fees, which city staff have said could amount to roughly twice the $1.1 million that was budgeted for such bills in 2019 and 2020.

Council members asked that Ciaravino provide more information in the future on pending litigation and other factors driving those costs so that the problem can be addressed.

The council will soon learn more about the rising legal bills in an upcoming study session.

The city manager has blamed the increase, in part, on hundreds of records requests the city has received in recent months.

Mill Creek continues to defend lawsuits filed by former city spokeswoman Joni Kirk, who has alleged that she was terminated in retaliation for reporting a previous city manager’s misconduct.

Early this year, attorneys for the Mill Creek also negotiated a separation agreement with ex-police chief Greg Elwin, who cut ties with the city after an investigation found that he allowed a fugitive relative to live in his home and failed to report an employee’s potentially threatening comment.

Now, the city is also defending a complaint that the union filed in July with the state Public Employment Relations Commission. The Washington State Council of County and City Employees alleged in the filing that city leaders refused to bargain with the local union; Ciaravino, however, has said the city openly communicated with the bargaining unit and did nothing illegal.

The union has argued that savings achieved by the layoffs could have instead been made through staff furloughs.

But the mayor told The Herald that the layoffs were not only meant to offset the pandemic-fueled revenue shortfall, expected to result in a $2 million hit to the city’s nearly $30 million general fund budget just this year alone; the staffers were also let go in an effort to stabilize the municipal budget so that the city doesn’t have to continue dipping into its reserves, as it has done in past years, Holtzclaw said.

While evaluating Ciaravino, the council praised his “legal acumen,” “risk awareness,” “strong ethical compass” and “personal integrity,” among other qualities.

“Looking back on the last 15 months,” the review says, “being able to simply ‘keep the wheels on’ is itself a significant accomplishment.’”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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