Mill Creek City Hall. (City of Mill Creek)

Mill Creek City Hall. (City of Mill Creek)

Mill Creek manager seeks $1 million in damages from city

After refusing several requests for a copy of Rebecca Polizzotto’s tort claim, the city reversed course Thursday.

MILL CREEK — Mill Creek’s city manager has filed a damage claim against the city, accusing staff and elected officials of treating her unfairly.

Rebecca Polizzotto is asking for $1 million in her nine-page complaint that could end up in court.

The city initially denied repeated requests to release the document, even though other local governments routinely provide tort claims under state public records laws. The city changed course without explanation Thursday, just over two hours after The Daily Herald published an online story about the decision not to release the document.

Polizzotto’s claim, filed in July, takes issue with how Mill Creek has handled whistleblower complaints that the police chief and three other directors made against her in late April. The other employees raised issues about her treatment of staff and stewardship of city finances.

Polizzotto said she later sat for a three-and-a-half hour interview with an outside attorney hired to sort out the allegations. She claims she was provided little chance to talk with the City Council before they voted unanimously, June 19, to place her on administrative leave.

“The city took action to deactivate Mrs. Polizzotto’s building access card and blocked Mrs. Polizzotto’s access to her email and documents,” the claim states. “The council provided no notice to Mrs. Polizzotto of any of this action. Mrs. Polizzotto learned of her administrative leave status through the news media.”

The next day, Polizzotto said she was contacted by Mayor Pam Pruitt, who let her know she could retrieve personal items from her office if accompanied by two council members. That direction reportedly came on the advice of police.

Mill Creek Mayor Pam Pruitt keeps track of time during audience comments at a special council meeting on Aug 2. (Noah Haglund / The Herald)

Mill Creek Mayor Pam Pruitt keeps track of time during audience comments at a special council meeting on Aug 2. (Noah Haglund / The Herald)

The claim alleges breach of contract, violation of due process rights, defamation and interference with supervising employees. The city has 60 days to settle or reject the claim.

Polizzotto’s attorney, Joel Nichols, of Everett, had declined to comment on the claim before it was released. He could not be reached again late Thursday afternoon.

The whistleblower complaints arose as Polizzotto was battling health issues, which she describes in her complaint as severe bronchitis. As recounted in the claim, she said the City Council encouraged her in late April to take sick leave and get well. The claim describes them relaying a supportive message:

“The City Attorney (Scott Missall) and Mayor Pro Tem (Brian Holtzclaw) told Mrs. Polizzotto that the council asked them to convey to Mrs. Polizzotto that it was unanimous in its position that it did not want Mrs. Polizzotto to leave city employment, and further conveyed that she had the support of the entire council.”

By that time, state auditors were finalizing a yearly accountability report focused on the city’s credit card practices, including charges for alcohol and questionable meals on Polizzotto’s card.

The damage claim notes that those transactions had been reviewed by the state auditor’s “fraud unit and no fraud was found.”

The state auditor did issue what’s called a finding — their way of flagging a serious accounting issue that should be addressed. The report tallied $269 in charges for alcohol and another $955 for eyebrow-raising meal expenses on the city manager’s card.

The damage claim alleges the council handled complaints about Polizzotto differently because of her gender. To support that assertion, the claim points to a labor complaint that accused Police Chief Greg Elwin of intimidation and bullying.

Civilian police department employees represented by the Washington State Council of County and City Employees raised the issue last year as part of an unfair labor practice complaint, which they later withdrew. They alleged that the police chief had banged on hallway walls and slammed cabinet doors after union members asked him to leave an office where they were trying to conduct a meeting. A union staff representative said he was disappointed to see the issue resurface now.

“We don’t want that to be used as a basis to undermine the police chief’s credibility,” the union’s Miguel Morga said. “We hope nobody uses that to avoid addressing the issues that the chief brought up.”

Polizzotto, 53, receives an annual salary of nearly $174,000 plus a car allowance.

The City Council hired her in 2015 after a nationwide search. She moved to Mill Creek from Juneau, Alaska, where she had worked as an assistant state attorney general. Before that, she had managed a small city near Atlanta.

Last year, the council amended its contract with Polizzotto to serve as city manager indefinitely. That’s according to her claim, which also says she received a one-time retention payment of $17,000 as part of that agreement. Previous records provided by the city showed a $16,000 payment.

If the city were to terminate Polizzotto without cause before Dec. 31, 2019, the agreement would award her a year’s worth of base salary, the claim states. The amount would fall to the equivalent of six months of base salary if she were to be terminated without cause on or after Jan. 1, 2020.

Polizzotto’s leave had been set to expire Aug. 3, but the council extended it by another three weeks to allow time for the internal investigation. Another special council meeting is expected next week, but had not yet been confirmed.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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