Fired Mill Creek spokesperson seeks $500,000 in damages

In a legal claim, Joni Kirk contends her firing was retaliation, but the city denies that.

Joni Kirk (City of Mill Creek)

Joni Kirk (City of Mill Creek)

MILL CREEK — The former spokesperson for Mill Creek contends she was fired this summer in part for her role as a whistleblower who highlighted problems in municipal government.

Joni Kirk said she suffered defamation as a result of public statements that city officials made after her Aug. 2 removal. The allegations are contained in a tort claim Kirk filed days later. She’s requesting $500,000 in damages.

The city rejects the allegations.

“Ms. Kirk’s claim for damages has been forwarded to the City’s risk pool for evaluation, and has been denied,” the city said in a statement.

The Daily Herald requested copies of Kirk’s damage claim on Aug. 6 and again a week later after her attorney filed an amended version.

The city demurred for more than a month before releasing a copy under the state’s public records law. The documents, along with a city press release, were issued at 5:51 p.m. Friday.

Other local governments customarily release damage claims within days. The claims are a legally required step in Washington before filing a lawsuit against a public entity.

“Through counsel Ms. Kirk is willing to engage in discussions with the City attempting to resolve this matter short of litigation,” according to the claim. “Should a resolution not be reached it is Ms. Kirk’s intention at this time to move forward with litigation after the required 60-day period of time.”

The legal action also asserts that Kirk suffered discrimination as a woman and suffered harm to her personal and professional reputation as a result of actions by Mill Creek city leaders. She is being represented by attorney Rodney Moody of Everett.

Kirk started working as Mill Creek’s director of communications and marketing in early 2017. She was earning about $116,000 per year at the time of her separation.

She was fired after a nearly two-month internal investigation, which the city declined to release. She had been on paid leave since June 4.

“(T)he City concluded she showed poor judgment in the handling of an employment situation, including recording a private meeting on her personal cell phone without consent and failing to disclose the recording to the public records officer when records requests were made,” the press release states.

The “employment situation” was Kirk’s March 29 decision to fire Gordon Brink, a subordinate in the communications office. Brink was just days short of one year on the job and nearing the end of a probationary period.

Kirk maintains she fired Brink for cause. Her claim for damages concedes she never informed him about the recording but that there should have been no expectation of privacy. Kirk said she informed another city employee after the fact. A different city employee was in the room during the meeting.

“There was no attempt to keep secret the fact that the meeting had been recorded,” Kirk’s claim states.

Brink disagrees. In an interview Monday, he said the recording was kept hidden from him and that he considers it “a huge violation.”

“I don’t understand the purpose of recording any termination, specifically when you have a witness there,” Brink said. “It was a violation. It was targeted.”

Washington law requires consent from everyone involved in a private conversation between two or more people before making an electronic recording. Mill Creek referred an investigation of Kirk’s recording to the Everett Police Department.

Brink said he was unaware of any performance issues until the day Kirk terminated him. On Monday of that week, he said, he and Kirk discussed digital camera training he would be taking in April. By that Friday, he was out.

“To tell me Monday, fine there are no issues … then Friday to tell me there are a slew of issues,” he said.

After Brink’s departure, his union, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, filed an unfair labor practice complaint on his behalf. At the time, the union was unaware of Kirk’s recording.

The union withdrew the complaint after reaching a negotiated settlement that involved the city reinstating Brink. He is now covering Kirk’s duties as the city’s interim director of communications and marketing.

Kirk was one of four high-level city employees who filed whistleblower complaints last year accusing Mill Creek’s then-city manager, Rebecca Polizzotto, of bullying staff and misusing city resources. Polizzotto left her job in the fall of 2018 after reaching a separation agreement with the city.

Kirk’s damage claim maintains that Mayor Pam Pruitt supported Polizzotto and remained displeased with those who filed complaints. Pruitt could not be reached for comment Monday.

Mill Creek’s City Council hired the current city manager, Michael Ciaravino, in May after a nationwide search. Ciaravino most recently worked in Newburgh, New York.

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

Talk to us

More in Local News

Staff are evaluating two more light rail alternatives for the Everett Link extension. One would follow Interstate 5 north of 128th Street SW to the Everett Mall and back to the freeway. Another would go west of 128th Street SW to Highway 99 and north to Casino Road. (Sound Transit)
Snohomish County leaders reject light rail routes bypassing Paine Field

Those options weren’t what voters approved — and would be like “butchering” the plan, the Snohomish County executive said.

A Sound Transit train arrives at Westlake Station in downtown Seattle. (Sue Misao / Herald file) May 2019
Should light rail skip Paine Field and Boeing? We asked, you answered

More than 300 Herald readers responded to an online poll. Here are the results.

Councilmember Megan Dunn, left, stands next to County Executive Dave Somers as he presents his 2023 budget proposal to her, Councilmember Nate Nehring and Councilmember Sam Low. (Snohomish County)
As County Council begins budget talks, here’s how you can weigh in.

Department heads will make their pitches in the next few days. Residents will get a say at a forum and two hearings this month

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Highway 9 work could disrupt travel through Lake Stevens

Construction is set for roundabouts on South Lake Stevens Road and one at North Davies Road and Vernon Road.

Lynnwood City Council members, from left: Jim Smith, Shirley Sutton, Shannon Sessions, Josh Binda, George Hurst, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, and Patrick Decker. (City of Lynnwood)
No penalty for Lynnwood council member’s ‘underinformed’ views on racism

The City Council didn’t censure Jim Smith after a report found he discriminated against a Black city employee.

All ears: Mukilteo couple provides surgery for kids born without ears

Dr. Prabhat and Trish Bhama are part of a HUGS volunteer team providing treatment for microtia in Guatemala.

Everett gets state Auditor’s Office stewardship award

State Auditor Pat McCarthy presented the award during the most recent Everett City Council meeting.

Representative Rick Larsen speaks at the March For Our Lives rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Larsen to hold community meeting in Everett on Monday

The veteran Democratic lawmaker will address recent legislation passed by Congress and other topics.

Tribal members dance to start an assemble on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day Friday evening at Tulalip Gathering Hall in Tulalip, Washington on September 30, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
‘Still here’: Tulalip boarding school descendants celebrate resilience

On Orange Shirt Day, a national day of remembrance, the Tulalip Tribes honored those who suffered due to violent cultural suppression.

Most Read