Mill Creek council issues no comment over city manager absence

At a Friday night meeting, elected officials approved a prepared statement without taking comment.

Rebecca Polizzotto

Rebecca Polizzotto

MILL CREEK — The City Council called an unusual Friday night meeting to draft a statement about city manager Rebecca Polizzotto, a hard-charging and controversial administrator who went on leave in April citing medical reasons.

Mayor Pam Pruitt wanted to combat rumors linking Polizzotto’s absence from City Hall to possible impropriety.

“This woman is an incredible asset to our community,” Pruitt said Thursday. “She got us back on track.”

The council met for about five minutes Friday before distributing a printed, two-paragraph statement, saying they would not comment on any allegations. Much of the statement focused on an article in a weekly newspaper.

“The council looks forward to Ms. Polizzotto being able to return to work soon,” the statement read.

Mayor Pro Tem Brian Holtzclaw said it was important the council speak with one voice. The council unanimously approved the statement after it was read. No public comment was allowed and council members declined to speak with reporters.

It was unclear who drafted the prepared statement, and when. Washington state law prohibits elected officials from adopting resolutions “except in a meeting open to the public.” Also banned is making policy decisions by email or phone.

Pruitt and most of the City Council have stood by Polizzotto during her three years at the city, despite the manager’s clashes with rank-and-file employees. Former city workers have accused her of creating a toxic workplace that’s driven a high rate of staff turnover.

The new tension arises as state auditors finalize a yearly audit of Mill Creek.

Auditors last year flagged trouble spots with the city’s bookkeeping. Areas for improvement included the regular use of city funds to buy employee-appreciation gifts such as gift cards, pens and jewelry, a practice that predated the current city manager. Auditors noted lax documentation for meal and other credit card purchases, many made by Polizzotto.

The recommendations came in a management letter, a tool for identifying mid-level accounting issues.

Polizzotto at the time defended her spending and said she was working to develop new city policies to avoid future confusion.

The state Auditor’s Office is trying to schedule exit interviews with city officials before releasing its report for the 2017 fiscal year, agency spokeswoman Kathleen Cooper said.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as an investigation — it’s an accountability audit to look at (certain aspects of) city operations,” Cooper said. “We’ve worked very hard to schedule that exit interview.”

Cooper declined to describe the results.

Auditors typically look at city operations that pose a higher risk of conflict with relevant laws, procedures or policies, she said. They often revisit past audit issues, such as those identified in last year’s management letter.

“It’s a risk-based audit,” Cooper said. “If there’s anything that’s come up in the past, we follow up on it.”

Pruitt said she spoke with state auditors Thursday.

“There’s no investigation,” she said. “There’s no fraud. If there were anything at all, you know, I’d take care of it.”

Contributing to the confusion was an article about Polizzotto published Wednesday in the weekly Mill Creek Beacon. Cooper from the state auditor’s office said the article “incorrectly characterizes our work and it quotes me on things I did not say.”

The council’s prepared statement Friday said, “There has been no investigation by the auditor’s office of any fraud allegation, and the council has not reprimanded Ms. Polizzotto.”

Councilman Mike Todd said that senior city staff were doing a good job keeping the city running.

Pruitt and others have made passing references to Polizzotto being ill at recent council meetings. The mayor said she’s been shuttling work documents to her in person. She planned to drop off more paperwork Friday night.

“Even when she’s out sick, she’s doing work from home,” Pruitt said. “She was working 70-hour weeks for nearly three years. She developed respiratory issues. She’s getting better. We expect her back very soon.”

A lawyer with a master’s degree in public administration, Polizzotto worked as an assistant attorney general in Alaska and managed a small city in Georgia before coming to Mill Creek in mid-2015.

She’s the highest-ranking employee for the city of 20,000 with 54 full-time employees, about half within the police department. Another 12 city workers are part time or seasonal.

The city manager draws an annual base salary of $173,825 — almost as much as Gov. Jay Inslee’s $175,353 yearly paycheck. She also received a one-time payment last year of $16,000 listed in city payroll records as an “employee reward,” HR staff said. The contract also provides Polizzotto a $300 monthly car allowance.

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

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