Mill Creek city manager abruptly resigns, ending turbulent tenure

The City Council approved a settlement with Michael Ciaravino after an executive session. Terms aren’t yet public.

Michael Ciaravino

Michael Ciaravino

MILL CREEK — City Manager Michael Ciaravino has stepped down, citing personal reasons, after less than three years overseeing Mill Creek’s day-to-day operations.

Following a more than two-hour closed door session, the City Council approved a “settlement agreement and general release” with Ciaravino, who has faced criticism for controversial staffing decisions and other choices on the job.

Under the agreement, Ciaravino “will remain available when requested to assist the city in the transition of certain key initiatives and ongoing matters,” according to a news release issued late Tuesday.

“I need to dedicate my time to critical long term family medical matters, including extensive travel between Seattle and Cleveland,” Ciaravino, who is originally from Ohio, said in the news release. “I will be unable to fulfill my duties and responsibilities as City Manager during a very demanding time.”

As of Wednesday evening, the other terms of the agreement had not been made public.

The details were not discussed during the public portion of Tuesday night’s special meeting.

The agenda included a confidential executive session to discuss “the performance of a public employee,” as well as “pending litigation” and “collective bargaining strategy.” The council was also expected to take up new business regarding Ciaravino’s annual performance review and employment contract, according to a public notice from the city.

Instead, the council passed the separation agreement in a 5-0 vote, with council members Vincent Cavaleri and Adam Morgan absent and excused.

“The city is grateful for Michael’s dedicated service over the past 2½ years, during which he helped the city navigate through a financial reorganization, guided the city’s defense of complex litigation, and addressed the multitude of issues brought upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayor Brian Holtzclaw said during the meeting, reading a prepared statement.

The departure comes on the heels of two extremely tight races for City Council, with sitting council members seeking to keep their seats. Holtzclaw, for example, was leading by 10 votes out of about 4,800 cast in the general election.

Ciaravino’s three-year employment contract, subject to annual review, was set to end on May 6. His annual base salary was $175,000.

“I want to thank the City Council and the citizens of Mill Creek for the opportunity to serve this very beautiful and remarkable community, and I will always be invested in its long-term success,” Ciaravino said in the news release.

His annual performance review process began last summer and included interviews with department directors and line-level staff.

In his latest review, all but one City Council member agreed Ciaravino had met or exceeded their expectations. The dissenting council member, John Steckler, has said he does not have confidence in the city manager.

The final written evaluation, dated Oct. 5, cited ongoing “staff morale issues.” The city provided the document to The Daily Herald in response to a records request.

“While Michael seems to be effectively communicating with his direct reports, council is concerned that some staff believe there is both a lack of agency-wide communication coming from Michael, and a lack of employee recognition activities,” the review says.

The council also recommended that Ciaravino continue to improve on communication, including media relations.

“Sometimes we are reading things in the newspaper about City Hall that we did not know about,” the City Council wrote.

The city manager most recently came under fire from the Mill Creek Police Officers’ Guild, which blamed him for staffing shortages that police say have left the department desperate. Last month, the council approved hiring incentives to encourage trained law enforcement officers to apply for open jobs.

Last fall, a union representing many of Mill Creek’s employees urged the council to remove Ciaravino from the position after members voted to declare no confidence in the city manager. The local bargaining unit filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission in July 2020, citing Ciaravino’s decision to lay off longtime staffers instead of instituting furloughs to offset the revenue loss caused by the pandemic. The union accused him of showing favoritism to two top staff members who worked with him at previous jobs.

The city manager has also drawn scrutiny for the city’s soaring legal bills related to union grievances, lawsuits and public records requests. The city is still facing litigation brought by former Mill Creek spokeswoman Joni Kirk, who first sued the city in December 2019, alleging that she was terminated in retaliation for reporting a previous city manager’s misconduct. Kirk also claimed that, under Ciaravino’s leadership, the city refused to hand over public records related to her case.

In the past year, the council has worked with Ciaravino to establish a permanent leadership team and address other problems.

The city manager selected a new police chief, Jeff Young, last December. The former chief, Greg Elwin, severed ties with Mill Creek in spring 2020 after an investigation found he violated department policy.

Ciaravino also hired a new finance director, a deputy city manager and two communication and marketing staffers.

The City Council’s only hiring decision is choosing the city manager, who is in charge of all other personnel.

The council will begin the search process for Ciaravino’s replacement at its next meeting on Tuesday.

The city has not announced an interim city manager.

“Transitions are always challenging,” Holtzclaw said. “The council is asking our city leadership team to come together and to demonstrate extraordinary teamwork in assisting the council as we work through a very full agenda of significant items between now, year-end and the beginning of 2022.”

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

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