Mill Creek continues pattern of ousting city managers

MILL CREEK — The City Council might have set some sort of record, having forced half of its city managers to resign since Mill Creek was incorporated in 1983. The pattern has people concerned.

Most recently, city manager Ken Armstrong resigned, effective Jan. 2, after more than five weeks on paid leave. The council on Nov. 25 unanimously passed a resolution stating its intent to terminate Armstrong from his $144,200-a-year job and passed another measure that put him on leave.

Council members still won’t give a reason for the decision, citing concern for Armstrong’s privacy. Mayor Pam Pruitt said state law prevents her from discussing the matter publicly.

“If I did, I would be doing a disservice to the people I represent,” she said.

Armstrong said he wasn’t given an explanation, either. He decided not to request a public hearing before the council because that would have meant forfeiting his severance pay. Even if Armstrong had requested a hearing to voice a protest, he would have been owed no explanation.

“It seemed to be a waste of time,” he said. “It’s disappointing not to have that” reason for being forced out.

Armstrong instead signed an agreement to resign. His employment contract gave him the right to negotiate a severance package as long as the council did not remove him from the job for “cause.”

He negotiated an extension of his paid leave, from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2, to enable him to remain on the city’s health care plan through this month. In all, Armstrong will be paid for three months of regular salary.

Armstrong is the fourth Mill Creek city manager forced to resign.

In 2012, Timothy Burns, the city manager for five years, was forced to resign.

Steven Nolen was asked to resign in 2007 after two years as city manager.

In 1995, John Sims was forced to resign after two years. Mayor Pruitt was then a city councilwoman. The mayor at the time, Tim Austin, said Sims was a victim of a power play for control of the city.

At the time, he accused Pruitt of plotting to get rid of Sims during the year before the city manager was forced out. In an interview this week, Austin said that Pruitt in 1995 was trying to micromanage Mill Creek’s business.

“History tends to repeat itself,” Austin said. “Some things never change.”

In response, Pruitt this week said Austin was “bitter” that he was mayor for only one term. She denied his accusation of micromanaging.

“I have a day job and a night job,” said Pruitt, who works for Snohomish County Councilman Terry Ryan and has worked as city editor for the Mill Creek View newspaper. “I have no interest or time to stick my nose into operational business.”

As she said of Sims in 1995, Pruitt this week said Armstrong wasn’t “a fit,” and she encouraged people to “move on.”

“It’s over,” she said. “I’m excited about the future.”

The council Tuesday decided to spend $23,000 to hire the recruiting firm Colin Baenziger to find Armstrong’s replacement. Of the five firms that submitted proposals to the city, the Florida-headquartered recruiter had the longest guarantee. Baenziger will find a replacement at no charge for up to two years if the selected person leaves the job.

Armstrong said the fact that Mill Creek forced out several other city managers before him did not raise any red flags when he applied.

“They are developing a track record, however,” he said.

Austin wonders if quality people will want to work in Mill Creek with a “revolving door” for city managers. City Councilman Mike Todd said he is also concerned about Mill Creek setting that precedent.

“We want to look like a place people want to come,” Todd said. “I’m sad that we haven’t been able to keep some continuity.”

The council hired Armstrong because he was interested in “sticking with the community” long-term, Todd recalled. He pointed out that Pruitt, Brian Holtzclaw and Sean Kelly were elected to the council after Armstrong started in December 2012. With new people come new ideas for what the city needs, he said.

“It’s a tough job,” Todd said. “You’ve got seven bosses to please.”

Although Armstrong’s termination was unanimous, Todd said he would have liked to have talked to him about that decision.

“It’s not the way I personally would have handled it,” Todd said. “But this is not my singular decision.”

Council members Donna Michelson and Mark Bond were on a committee headed by Councilman Mark Harmsworth that interviewed city leaders and staff members about Armstrong’s job performance. Harmsworth, who resigned Dec. 31 after being elected to the state House of Representatives, declined to share the results of that evaluation.

Armstrong said last month that he had disagreements with Harmsworth and the mayor. He speculated that friction related to things he has written for publications and his planning for the city’s biennial budget might have played roles in his termination.

The council passed the budget after he was put on leave, with about $886,000 cut from it. Some of the reductions were on a list of suggested savings Armstrong provided, others were new ideas, Pruitt said.

“Ken was very reluctant to make cuts,” she said.

The approved 2015-16 budget that will run a deficit of about $1.8 million, with projected general fund expenses of about $25.5 million exceeding revenues of $23.8 million.

While the council looks for Armstrong’s replacement, finance director Landy Manuel is acting city manager. He will be paid a 10 percent premium on his $116,556-a-year salary until a new city manager is found. Manuel plans to retire this summer, so the city will soon be in the market for a new finance director, as well.

Armstrong is now looking for a new job. He previously worked for Seattle Public Utilities and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He said he “enjoyed tremendously” his time in Mill Creek but he isn’t sure if he wants to be a city manager again.

“I would certainly go into it with my eyes more open,” Armstrong said.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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