Mill Creek sacks communications chief after investigation

The former spokesperson’s attorney said he’s prepared to sue the city for workplace retaliation.

Joni Kirk (City of Mill Creek)

Joni Kirk (City of Mill Creek)

MILL CREEK — Mill Creek made a public showing Monday of firing its communications director.

A news release accused former city spokeswoman Joni Kirk of illegally recording a meeting earlier this year about the termination of another employee, though her attorney disputes that account. The city fired Kirk on Friday.

“The City concluded that Ms. Kirk showed poor judgment,” the Mill Creek release states. “The City does not have trust and confidence that she could satisfactorily perform her duties as Director of Communications and Marketing and represent the City’s best interests in a leadership role.”

Kirk’s termination stems in part from an unfair labor practice complaint filed with the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission, according to the release. The city hired a neutral investigator in early June to look into the facts. Based on the findings, the city on July 1 reinstated the employee who had been fired earlier this year and ended Kirk’s employment last week.

“It came to light that she had recorded the termination meeting on her personal cell phone,” the release states. “Ms. Kirk has stated that she did not know Washington law required consent to record and maintains that she did nothing improper. At the same time, she did not disclose the recording to the public records officer when records requests were made.”

The law in question requires consent from everyone involved in a private conversation between two or more people before making an electronic recording.

Kirk’s attorney said his client broke no law. Rodney Moody said he’s drafting a tort claim to put the city on notice of a potential lawsuit, if City Hall won’t make things right for his client.

“There was no reasonable expectation of privacy in this conservation,” Moody said.

The Everett-based attorney said he’s looking into possible workplace retaliation against Kirk. Moody also said that other managers were involved in the decision to terminate the employee and that Kirk immediately told at least one of them about the recording.

Kirk started working for Mill Creek in early 2017, handling media inquiries and promoting the city’s tourism interests. She brought more than 20 years of relevant experience, including at the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau, the University of Washington and the University of Idaho.

Her departure is just the latest episode of turnover at City Hall.

On July 26, finance director Peggy Lauerman submitted her resignation. The city named Tara Dunford, a former controller for the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma, as the interim finance director.

Lauerman and Kirk were among four high-level employees who filed whistleblower complaints in 2018 against Mill Creek’s then-city manager, Rebecca Polizzotto. The city placed Polizzotto on leave for months as an outside investigators looked into allegations about bullying staff and misusing city resources. She was terminated without cause in October after a separation agreement that required her to drop a $1 million damage claim against the city.

Mill Creek’s City Council hired the current city manager, Michael Ciaravino, in May after a nationwide search. Ciaravino had most recently held a similar position in Newburgh, New York.

The city’s press release about Kirk said there would be no further comment on the matter, and Ciaravino could not be reached for follow-up questions late Monday afternoon.

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

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