Issues over raises for county officials unresolved

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council released internal legal documents Monday to bolster an argument that Executive John Lovick earlier this year improperly awarded raises to upper managers.

The memos from county attorneys say that Lovick’s administration failed to follow county code when boosting pay by 10 percent for some of the county’s highest-paid employees. About a dozen exempt positions were initially subject to the raises.

“These are the official positions of the county prosecuting attorney on the salary raises,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said. “The executive continued to grant raises contrary to this.”

The pay hikes came to light this spring, upsetting some people in county government because other departments, at the time, were being told to prepare for potential budget cuts. The raises have lingered as a sore point ever since. Lovick has said the council acted punitively and unfairly singled out members of his administration by axing some of the raises from the county’s 2015 budget.

In October, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe wrote to Lovick saying that attorneys in his office believe the pay raise issue was an honest mistake — but a mistake nonetheless. The prosecutor said he was confident the procedural problem was “well on its way to being corrected.”

“(I)n no way do we believe that there was any intent to circumvent the code or the council,” Roe wrote.

To a majority of the council members, the issue remains unresolved. They allowed the new pay levels to stand for some positions in next year’s budget, but reset them to pre-raise levels for six people: the deputy executive, human resources director, parks director, the facilities director and two top finance managers. Before the pay increases, salaries for those positions ranged from $116,000 to $172,000.

Council members said they took the unusual step of waiving confidentiality on the attorney memos to share them with the state auditor and the community.

Auditors looking over the county’s books asked for documentation about the raises this fall as part of a regularly scheduled audit.

One of the memos was written to Councilman Terry Ryan in August. A deputy prosecutor concluded that the raises violated county code because they were not submitted to the council for approval.

Also, they weren’t supported by any documentation such as a labor market survey or other relevant information. That’s also specified in code.

A second county attorney reviewed the issue in December at Somers’ request and reached the same conclusion.

“It’s very clear that the County Council has the authority in these matters and it was not followed correctly,” Ryan said. “The legal memo from our own attorneys makes that quite clear.”

Not all council members agree.

Councilman Brian Sullivan shares Lovick’s stance that the pay cuts were punitive. He has suggested they could result in legal action by the affected parties. Sullivan said he’s convinced that the human resources director performed an adequate salary survey to justify the change.

“I’ll probably follow up with a letter of my own to the state auditor,” he said.

Next year’s county budget authorizes spending $25,000 to study appropriate salary levels.

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

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