MUKILTEO —A majority of City Council members this week publicly upbraided Mayor Jennifer Gregerson, accused her of dishonesty and manipulation, and then delivered a vote of no confidence in her leadership.
The tense episode unfolded near the end of Monday’s City Council meeting. It marked the latest escalation in a rift ignited weeks ago with the council’s learning of the mayor’s authorizing of severance payments to several former staffers since taking office five years ago.
Councilwoman Anna Rohrbough proposed the no-confidence vote in response to what she described as Gregerson’s refusal to take responsibility for not informing the council of those payments and other spending decisions.
“You continue to circumnavigate the process by excluding the council from the decisions that are rightfully there to protect the public process,” Rohrbough said Monday night. “You consistently serve your own personal agenda rather than engage in transparent communication. You continue to manipulate the truth, lying on record and even going so far as directing employees to leave out information relevant to the decisions being presented to council in regards to our budget policies.
“We spend 20 hours a week trying to rifle through the crap to get to the truth,” she said “We need transparency.”
Councilman Scott Whelpley, whose public records request netted information on the severance agreements, said there are more allegations against the mayor to come.
“What’s happened here is basically there is no adult supervision, and now we have to do it in order to keep this city safe,” he said. “Enough is enough. I can’t stand it anymore.”
The vote passed 4-2 with Rohrbough, Council President Steve Schmalz and council members Whelpley and Christine Cook supporting it. Councilmen Bob Champion and Richard Emery dissented.
Gregerson furrowed her brow during the 15-minute discussion, speaking only to call on council members to comment and vote.
On Wednesday, she said she’s made changes demanded by the City Council in recent weeks. One of those is a pledge to bring any severance or separation agreement to them.
“I think that the council felt like it needed to make a political statement. They’ve done that,” she said. “I don’t agree with Councilwoman Rohrbough’s characterization of me. But as a councilwoman she needs to fulfill her duty as she sees best.
“I’m confident we are doing things right. I am changing our practices to comply with the feedback I’ve gotten from the council,” she said. “I honestly want to move on and work together to get things done for Mukilteo.”
Not so fast, Rohrbough and Whelpley said Wednesday.
“I think everything she said is bulls—t. What she wants is for us to move forward,” Rohrbough said. “This was not political at all. This was not personal. This was for our city.”
Whelpley said he’s happy Gregerson is retooling per the council’s direction. Still, he said, the council will need to monitor “the spending of every dollar” out of her office.
Schmalz said the no-confidence vote is not binding.
“The council made a statement,” Schmalz said. “We’re frustrated and concerned about the direction the mayor is taking the city. She needs to follow state law and recognize what the council role is.”
Gregerson, a former city councilwoman, was elected mayor of the city of 21,000 in November 2013 and re-elected in 2017. She said she earns roughly $71,000 a year.
She’s found herself on the defensive regarding use of separation and severance agreements with at-will employees hired by herself as well as her predecessor Joe Marine.
Those workers signed an employment agreement promising them a salary for up to two months if they are terminated without cause. If they landed a new job quickly, they would not get the full two months. The agreements also note that those who resign on their own are not entitled to any severance but would get paid for earned but unused vacation and sick leave.
Records received by Whelpley — and since obtained by The Daily Herald — reveal some ex-workers got three months pay. At least one who resigned still received five weeks of salary.
And the situation of Marko Liias, a state senator who worked as a policy analyst for Gregerson, has angered council members.
The council eliminated his job in December 2017. Per his agreement, Liias received a payment of $6,355 which was equivalent to three months pay. Part of that covered tuition reimbursement for courses he took as a city employee.
Liias said had he not lost the job, he would have filed for and received reimbursement in January 2018. He asked if the sum could be added to his settlement since he racked up the expense but lost the job before he could file.
Council members have voiced concern about the handling of his settlement. They’ve demanded to see the paperwork. They allege Gregerson approved the reimbursement dollars because of their friendship.
Gregerson denied negotiating the settlement sum with Liias but did take responsibility for signing the final approval paperwork.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 6, the City Council voted to require all future severance and separation agreements be brought forward for review.
“I was under the understanding that we were doing this all the right way. Clearly we should have been bringing (the agreements) to the council,” Gregerson said. “I’m glad that we have a new process that involves them.”