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; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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