City of Mill Creek dealing with management, staffing issues

MILL CREEK — Rancor is growing over an exodus of employees from City Hall.

About a quarter of Mill Creek’s staff has left during the past 18 months. Many of the departed workers say they fled to other jobs, or no job at all, to escape a toxic atmosphere that’s pervaded Mill Creek’s government under its city manager, Rebecca Polizzotto.

Polizzotto said she’s tried to make headway changing the culture of a young, still evolving city. She enjoys strong support from most of the City Council.

“The council pays me to make the hard decisions, not the popular decisions and I try to do that with as much care and finesse as I can,” Polizzotto said.

Trouble has been percolating since October, after the city employees’ union sent a letter to the City Council with concerns about Polizzotto’s management. The drama has played out ever since in stories and letters published in the three weekly news outlets that focus on Mill Creek.

The city of 20,000 has changed substantially since its incorporation in 1983, when some likened it to an overgrown homeowners association.

The city now has 63 full-time employees and 11 part-time or seasonal employees. Almost half work within the police department.

From the beginning of Polizzotto’s tenure, in June 2015 through this November, 17 employees have left. They include retirements, employees who landed new jobs and others who said they jumped ship out of pure frustration. Several of the vacant jobs, but not all, have been filled. Interviews with 10 current and former employees pointed to frustrations with Polizzotto’s way of doing business.

The issue burst out in full fury at a Nov. 22 council meeting.

“All we want is to find out what is going on,” said Mary Kay Voss, a former city councilwoman who spoke on behalf of current and former employees. “Why would you not want to do that? Why would you not want to vindicate yourself in the eyes of the citizens?”

Voss urged the City Council to support a petition for an independent personnel investigation. The petition asks the council to put Polizzotto on paid leave while an investigator looks into allegations about her leadership and her treatment of employees. It demands the city hire an interim manager to fill in during the probe. Signers want any findings made public, and not locked away in a personnel file.

Only Councilwoman Donna Michelson was open to the idea.

“It’s very concerning to me what’s going on,” said Michelson, who has served on the council since 1999. “I’ve never seen an exodus of this magnitude ever.”

Without change, she fears more employees will leave.

Mayor pro tem Brian Holtzclaw called the public accusations against the city manager “disgraceful.” He read a letter of support for her at the recent council meeting. All of his colleagues except for Michelson endorsed it.

“I am personally comfortable that what I know is not warranting spending tens of thousands of dollars on any kind of independent investigation, let alone putting our city manager on leave,” Holtzclaw said.

The controversy already has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, he said, because Polizzotto has recused herself from labor negotiations that began last month. The city is paying a labor attorney from a private firm to fill her role. The new union contract is one of the major issues facing the city, along with balancing the budget and talks over renewing a fire and EMS contract with Fire District 7.

Polizzotto came to town with a mandate to usher in a new era of city politics.

She was hired after a nationwide search. At the time, she was a senior assistant state attorney general in Alaska, where she had been working for more than a decade. Before that, she had been the city manager in Conyers, Georgia, near Atlanta.

She replaced City Manager Ken Armstrong, who was forced to resign in early 2015, soon after the City Council voted to terminate him and placed him on paid leave. Since Mill Creek was incorporated in 1983, the council has forced out half of its managers.

Polizzotto negotiated a contract that would pay her a year’s worth of salary if the council terminated her within the first three years of employment for reasons other than misconduct, fraud, being charged with a crime or unethical behavior.

She receives an annual salary of $157,500. She’s due for her next evaluation in June.

Mayor Pam Pruitt said the city is “just darn lucky to have her.”

“Rebecca is one of the most amazing city managers I’ve ever worked with,” said Pruitt, who has been in city government on and off since the late 1980s. “And she walked into a mess. We have accounting issues, we have personnel issues.”

Polizzotto’s supporters credit her with erasing a $2.4 million budget deficit as well as seeing through upgrades to City Hall without breaking the bank. Her critics wonder if some of the budget savings are only possible because so many people have left.

Mill Creek’s administrators talk about big changes that are needed in the interest of efficiency and customer service.

“We are positively trying to effect a culture change, which will affect people,” said Police Chief Greg Elwin, who was hired early this year. “We have a new management team with a different view.”

Several long-time employees agree that big changes are underway, but not for the better. They said they’re prepared to work hard. They also said they’re open to new ways of doing business, after adapting to so many city managers who came before.

Brooklyn Lee left in May after five years with the city, where she handled payroll and HR duties.

“She made it hard for me to be successful,” Lee said of Polizzotto.

Camille Chriest, a senior planner with the city, resigned in May after eight and a half years. Chriest said she felt the work environment had become hostile, management support was decreasing and that she was being told to do things she considered inappropriate. She’s now working in the private sector.

“I left because I was told to do something that was outside of my job scope and I left without another job,” Chriest said.

Kate Hamilton, a former detective sergeant with the police department, said she went into early retirement this past summer because of Polizzotto.

“The culture was not broken,” Hamilton said. “I understand what she was trying to accomplish, all employees are employed by the city and should be treated the same. She could have accomplished that without creating an environment that is driving employees to leave.”

Holtzclaw said Polizzotto received a “glowing review” in June. By then, most of the departed employees now at the center of the debate had already left. None, he said, had filed any formal complaints.

Until now, Mill Creek employees have always been able to work through concerns with managers without resorting to grievances, said Matthew Miller, a staff representative with the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, to which Mill Creek employees in Local 1811-M belong. Labor disputes there had been resolved in “a professional respectful manner.

“I am saddened to hear that the City of Mill Creek desires grievances and arbitrations from employees instead of communication, trust and transparency,” Miller said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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