MILL CREEK — Mill Creek’s acting police chief has been laid off about nine months after taking the helm of the department amid questions about whether the previous chief was fit to lead.
Scott Eastman, the agency’s former deputy police chief, unsuccessfully applied to become permanent chief. And his old position was nixed this year as the city sought to offset falling government revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic.
He worked his last day on Oct. 2, after almost three years with the department.
City Manager Michael Ciaravino has selected a new police chief, but has not yet announced who will succeed former Chief Greg Elwin, who severed ties with Mill Creek last spring after an investigation found he violated department policy.
The top finalist for the job is now undergoing background screening and other testing required for the position, Ciaravino told the Mill Creek City Council on Tuesday.
In the meantime, Sgt. Robert Phillips will run the department of about 20 police officers and a handful of administrative staff.
“The city is grateful to Chief Eastman for his service, particularly during the challenging times created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ciaravino said.
Eastman is the latest city employee to lose his job because of decisions made by Ciaravino, who has faced mounting criticism for handing pink slips to longtime employees in June while retaining two interim staffers who were his colleagues at past jobs.
A union representing city employees recently voted to declare no confidence in Ciaravino and urged the council to remove him from the position, citing the layoffs.
But the council is instead working with the city manager to establish a permanent leadership team, improve communication with residents and staff, and address other issues.
Community members and union representatives have argued that jobs could have been saved were it not for the city’s soaring legal fees, which are expected to hit nearly $1.7 million this year, according to projections shared at this week’s council meeting.
Eastman received a severance payment under a separation agreement with the city, Ciaravino said.
The Daily Herald requested a copy of the document on Tuesday, but it had not been made public as of Thursday.
“I really have been honored to lead the men and women of the Mill Creek Police Department during the toughest eight months in my 31 years of law enforcement,” said Eastman, who previously worked at police departments in Fife and Lacey.
Eastman became the Mill Creek Police Department’s acting chief when Elwin was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the probe, which the city launched following a Mill Creek Police Officers’ Guild no-confidence vote in the former chief.
The investigation later found Elwin let a relative, who was a fugitive, live with him and failed to report to the city manager an employee’s potentially threatening comment.
During Eastman’s short tenure as the department’s interim leader, he faced staffing shortages that put a strain on the department amid the pandemic. Meanwhile, nationwide, conversations about police brutality resonated locally, spurring protests and calls to “defund” law enforcement to put taxpayer dollars toward social services and other programs.
Eastman said he advocated for the elimination of his deputy chief position in the hopes that the cut would save another city employee’s job.
“I, maybe foolishly, thought that it would not affect me,” Eastman said. “I knew that I could lead that department without a deputy chief.”
But days after the council revised its budget in late May, Ciaravino laid off several employees, prompting a complaint to the state Public Employment Relations Commission.
The Washington State Council of County and City Employees alleged in the complaint that city leaders refused to negotiate with the local bargaining unit.
Ciaravino has defended his decision to let those employees go, saying the city openly communicated with the union and did nothing illegal.
A hearing on the complaint will likely take place next month, said Miguel Morga, the union’s staff services director.
Questions still loom about the city’s financial future.
Because of falling sales tax and fee revenue, the city faces a roughly $1 million budget shortfall in 2021-22, according to City Finance Director Jeff Balentine. He noted that estimate does not include tax revenue from a major construction project that’s set to wrap up next year.
The pandemic is expected to deal a more than $2 million blow to the city’s nearly $30 million general fund budget this year.
Meanwhile, Mill Creek’s legal bills during the 2019-20 biennium are on track to top nearly $2.5 million, Balentine told the council.
The city initially budgeted $668,000 for legal services during the two-year period but has so far spent nearly $1.7 million, City Attorney Grant Degginger told the council.
Degginger attributed the skyrocketing costs to public records requests and a slew of “unanticipated legal needs.”
In 2019 and 2020, the city has spent almost $380,000 on legal help to process records requests.
Some of those requests have been reviewed by attorneys because they involve ongoing litigation or threatened lawsuits, Degginger explained. The city also sometimes needs legal help to determine whether a document is exempt from disclosure under state law, he said.
Ciaravino said he intends to propose to the council a new policy that would let the city administration charge for costs associated with processing records requests. The council apparently passed a similar policy a few years ago, but Ciaravino said he considers that legislation “deficient” because it was approved without a public hearing.
“We want to be able to at least recoup some costs as it relates to the Public Records Act,” the city manager told the council.
Since the start of 2019, some $925,000 has gone to defending the city against lawsuits, investigating allegations of employee misconduct, negotiating separation agreements with departing employees, responding to union grievances, addressing hostile work environment complaints and meeting other unexpected legal needs.
“The good news is there are no current investigations,” Degginger said.
Attorneys continue to represent the city in two lawsuits filed by former Mill Creek spokeswoman Joni Kirk, who alleged that she was terminated in retaliation for reporting a previous city manager’s misconduct. The lawsuits also say the city has refused to hand over related public records.
“A lot of the legal fees are driven by actions that are outside of the city’s control,” Mayor Brian Holtzclaw said in an interview. “I can understand why it’s frustrating for the public. It’s frustrating for us, too.”
Other sources of legal costs include prosecuting municipal offenses and paying for attorneys to represent defendants who can’t afford them.
In 2021 and 2022, annual legal costs are projected to fall to about $600,000 a year, according to Balentine.
Paying for a designated human resources employee or contractor could reduce the city’s legal bills by giving staff access to a professional who could investigate complaints and resolve workplace issues internally, Degginger suggested.
Human resources issues are currently handled by Ciaravino’s interim chief of staff, Grace Lockett, whom he hired in January after the council created the new position while amending the city budget.
Lockett was a human resources coordinator in Maple Heights, Ohio, when Ciaravino served as that city’s mayor more than a decade ago.
Her salary at Mill Creek is more than $150,000 a year.
The council will likely discuss how the city will handle future human resources issues during upcoming budget talks, Holtzclaw said.
Ciaravino is scheduled to present his 2021-22 budget proposal to the council next month.
The council is to adopt a final spending plan on Dec. 1.