Mill Creek refuses to release city manager’s damage claim

Open government advocates say the city cannot keep secret Rebecca Polizzotto’s step toward a lawsuit.

Rebecca Polizzotto

Rebecca Polizzotto

UPDATE: Less than three hours after this story was first published, the city of Mill Creek publicly released a copy of the city manager’s claim for damages. A subsequent story reports on the contents of the claim.

MILL CREEK — While on paid leave from her job, Mill Creek’s top administrator has taken a possible step toward suing the city that employs her.

Details have proven hard to track down, though.

Mill Creek officials confirmed that Rebecca Polizzotto, the city manager, filed a claim for damages in late July. They declined to provide a copy after a public records request. A claim often, but not always, sets the stage for a lawsuit.

The city’s reluctance to release the damage claim differs from how other local governments handle similar requests. Snohomish County, Everett and many smaller cities routinely provide the same type of document under the state Public Records Act.

Polizzotto, 53, has been embroiled in controversy since this spring, over questionable charges on city credit cards and her treatment of city staff. In June, the City Council placed her on paid leave.

Mill Creek, through Scott Missall, the outside attorney it contracts for legal services, repeatedly denied The Daily Herald’s request for a copy of Polizzotto’s claim. The city’s refusal cited attorney-client privilege and a state law that exempts the release of documents not available to other parties through pre-trial discovery. No other local agencies have floated that argument.

“The city, as a general rule, does not comment on pending or potential litigation,” city spokeswoman Joni Kirk said. “The matter pertaining to Rebecca Polizzotto is an ongoing investigation. Just as we would not release the investigative report before the investigation had been completed, the same is true in this case.”

Records show Kirk was one of four City Hall whistleblowers who raised concerns about the city manager in April.

Open-government advocates on Wednesday cried foul on the city’s position.

“The public has a right to know what damages are alleged,” said Katherine George, a public interest attorney who serves on the board for the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“The only way a claim against the city could be privileged is if it contains confidential attorney-client communications. That would be inconsistent with the nature of a claim. So the city’s response is perplexing,” she said.

The coalition’s president, Kirkland City Councilman Toby Nixon, said their organization is pursuing cases in other parts of the state involving public agencies trying to stop the release of records about a party on the opposite side of a legal case. Mill Creek, in his view, cannot withhold communication with an “adverse outside party.”

“The city cannot keep it secret,” Nixon said. “If someone has filed a claim saying that the city has done something wrong and they intend to file a lawsuit about it, the people have a right to see the content of that claim.”

Damage claims can involve an array of situations, big and small. Some seek compensation after a person gets hurt tripping on a public sidewalk, or needs repairs after a fender-bender with a government vehicle. Claims also can allege harassment or discrimination at work.

It’s unclear what Polizzotto’s claim is about, only that it relates to something she alleges happened on April 20. That’s around the time that the police chief and three other directors from the city filed whistleblower complaints against her.

Her attorney, Joel Nichols of Everett, said he was unable to comment for this story.

Filing a damage claim is a required step before suing a public agency in Washington. A state agency, city or county government has 60 days to try to settle or reject the claim. After that, a complaint can be filed in court.

Polizzotto began working on and off from home in April, citing illness. She was placed on paid leave June 19.

Polizzotto 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.

In Mill Creek, she took over for a former city manager who left on bad terms. Ken Armstrong resigned in early 2015, soon after the City Council voted to terminate his contract. During its 35-year history, Mill Creek has forced out about half of its city managers.

Several employees and former employees came forward in 2016 to complain about Polizzotto’s management. Several said they quit city jobs because of the atmosphere under her leadership. The council at the time declined to hire an investigator to look into their complaints.

Polizzotto’s leave originally was set to expire Aug. 3. The night before that deadline, the City Council convened a special meeting, which began with a series of speakers from the audience expressing outrage about the city manager. The council went into an extended closed-door session to talk about the performance of an unnamed public employee and potential legal action. After nearly two hours, they came back before the public and voted unanimously to extend Polizzotto’s leave for three more weeks.

Another special council meeting is expected next week, before the city manager’s paid leave is set to expire.

Kirk, the city spokeswoman, said the date hasn’t been confirmed.

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

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