Mill Creek city employees’ union calls for top official’s ouster

They cite City Manager Michael Ciaravino’s decision to lay off longtime staffers instead of instituting furloughs.

Michael Ciaravino

Michael Ciaravino

MILL CREEK — A local union representing many of Mill Creek’s employees has voted to declare no confidence in City Manager Michael Ciaravino, citing his recent decision to lay off longtime staffers instead of instituting furloughs — all they say while showing favoritism to those in his inner circle.

“What we’re seeing in Mill Creek is not like anything we’re seeing in the state of Washington,” said Miguel Morga, staff representative for the local unit. It’s a part of AFSCME Council 2, which represents nearly 17,000 municipal workers statewide and about 20 in Mill Creek.

The union urged the City Council to remove Ciaravino from his position in a Tuesday statement, shared with council members via email, marking the culmination of months of mounting frustrations over the actions and behavior of the city’s Chief Executive Officer.

Morga declined to share the breakdown of the no-confidence vote, citing employees’ fear of retaliation.

Ciaravino did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment on Tuesday afternoon.

The decision comes just a week after former Mill Creek Mayor Pam Pruitt abruptly stepped down mid-term, following more than six years at the helm of the small city government.

The City Council on Tuesday evening unanimously elected Mayor Pro Tem Brian Holtzclaw to fill the mayor’s seat through the end of 2021.

“I want to thank Pam for all that she did over the years for the city,” Holtzclaw said. “No one can question her dedication to the city. But she has decided to move on and so must we. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Councilwoman Stephanie Vignal was chosen by the council as the new mayor pro tem.

The city will soon elicit applications to fill the council seat left open by Pruitt, who has said she resigned to spend more time with family and friends and serve the community in other ways.

Council members didn’t directly address the no-confidence during the public portion of their regular meeting.

They discussed amending the city’s governance manual to better define the working relationship between the council and the city manager, create opportunities to resolve issues raised by employees and ease communication among everyone.

The Tuesday night meeting concluded with a closed-door executive session “to discuss the performance of a public employee,” according to Holtzclaw. The council took no official action afterward.

Ciaravino’s annual performance review was completed during two closed-door meetings last month. The Daily Herald has requested the document; however, the city has not publicly released it.

In the union’s statement, Morga reiterated concerns that residents and ex-staffers have raised about Ciaravino’s decision to let go six employees to offset the fiscal toll of the new coronavirus pandemic while keeping on the payroll two temporary staff members. The city manager hired those two people, Interim Chief of Staff Grace Lockett and Interim City Clerk Naomi Fay, after working alongside them at past jobs.

“The Union came to the City with alternatives to permanent layoffs and despite acknowledging that the proposals saved the same amount of money to the City as the layoffs, Mr. Ciaravino still proceeded with layoffs.” Morga wrote in the statement. “Virtually every other municipality have agreed to use furloughs or other alternatives to reduce layoffs.”

Since the city manager hired Lockett roughly eight months ago, tensions have flared between the bargaining unit and the city administration, according to Morga.

Ciaravino and Lockett reduced the frequency of labor management meetings from once a month to once a quarter. The city administration presented the union with “misleading” information and often ignored communication from the union and staff “for long stretches of time,” Morga wrote.

“When staff would reach out, ask for information and provide opinions, it was often met with hostility with questions of whether these employees were ‘loyal,’” he wrote. “This mistreatment is unacceptable.”

In July, the union filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission alleging that the administration refused to negotiate with the bargaining unit before instituting the layoffs.

Ciaravino, however, has defended his decision to let the employees go, saying the city communicated openly with the union and did nothing illegal.

The union also underscored the city’s soaring legal bills under Ciaravino’s leadership — in part because the city manager has sought legal opinions for “basic matters,” Morga wrote in the statement.

The city is on track to spend upwards of $1 million more than the roughly $1.1 million that was budgeted for legal fees in 2019 and 2020, city staff have said.

Ciaravino has blamed the legal bills, in part, on hundreds of public records requests the city has received in recent months.

The council has plans to discuss the legal costs in greater detail at future meetings as the city gears up for its upcoming biennial budget process, which will conclude in December.

Former City Finance Director Jeff Balentine, who stepped down less than two weeks ago, told the council on Tuesday he will provide some assistance to the administration as the city devises a spending plan for 2021 and 2022.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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