Mill Creek finance director steps down for ‘personal reasons’

This fall, the city will confront pandemic-fueled budget issues without Jeff Balentine.

Jeff Balentine (City of Mill Creek)

Jeff Balentine (City of Mill Creek)

MILL CREEK — City Finance Director Jeff Balentine has resigned from his post, citing “philosophical differences” with city leadership, after less than five months on the job.

Balentine, whose last day as a city employee was Sunday, said he left the job for “personal reasons.”

“I really enjoyed working with the city,” he said. “The staff there is fantastic, and I think there’s a lot of great potential for the city.”

The city is now left with no finance director in the face of a budget crisis, as the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn have dealt blows to sales tax collections and other government revenues. Just this year, the COVID-19 crisis is expected to result in a $2 million hit to the city’s nearly $30 million general fund budget.

Balentine’s departure is the latest indication of trouble in Mill Creek’s city government, which has for years been plagued by high turnover rates and allegations of impropriety.

City Manager Michael Ciaravino has drawn scrutiny for a recent decision to lay off longtime employees to save the city money while retaining two interim staffers who were his colleagues at past jobs.

A union representing some of the employees who were axed has filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission alleging that the city refused to negotiate with the bargaining unit; however, Ciaravino has said the city openly communicated with the union and did nothing illegal.

Mill Creek City Council members have publicly kept mum about the concerns that residents and ex-employees have raised about Ciaravino’s actions.

But the council now has the opportunity to provide feedback during the city manager’s annual performance evaluation, which is taking place over the course of two closed-door executive sessions.

One of those meetings was set for Tuesday, according to a notice posted on the city’s website Monday.

The council has the power to hire or fire a city manager.

Ciaravino has also come under fire for Mill Creek’s mounting legal bills.

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, Balentine previously told the City Council.

The city continues to defend lawsuits brought by a former city spokeswoman, who claims she faced retaliation for reporting issues with a past city manager’s behavior.

Mill Creek also needed legal advice to negotiate a separation agreement with ex-police chief Greg Elwin, who parted ways with the city after an investigation found that he allowed a fugitive relative to live in his home and failed to report an employee’s potentially threatening comment.

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

He’s exploring measures to reduce those costs as part of the city’s biennial budgeting process, which will gear up this fall and conclude in December.

Former City Finance Director Peggy Lauerman resigned in July 2019. Lauerman was one of four high-level city employees who filed whistleblower complaints in 2018 about ex-City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto, who was later fired amid allegations that she bullied staff and misused her city credit card.

After Lauerman stepped down, the city named Tara Dunford as its interim finance director.

The city announced that it had hired Balentine in a March 27 news release.

“In his short tenure at City Hall, he proved to be an integral member of our emerging, highly functioning Management Team,” Ciaravino said in an email to The Daily Herald late Friday afternoon.

Balentine said he now works full-time for the city of Granite Falls.

During his tenure at Mill Creek, he served as a contractor offering financial advice to Granite Falls on a part-time basis.

“This decision was not an easy one to make,” he told Ciaravino in his resignation letter, which the city manager provided to The Herald. “The past few months have been very rewarding. I’ve enjoyed working for you and managing a very successful team dedicated to the City.”

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

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