MILL CREEK — The dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House starred the rib eye.
The city manager’s entree was accompanied by a special crab-cake topping, two cosmopolitan cocktails and a dessert of crème brûlée. Rebecca Polizzotto charged it to her Mill Creek city credit card while attending a work conference in Texas.
Less than two hours later, that $158.14 bill was followed by a $29.23 order to Polizzotto’s room at the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk. It included s’mores cupcakes, ice cream and coffee.
“Mill Creek hosted dinner,” was scrawled by way of explanation on a receipt. “(City manager) paid for hosting dinner pending adoption of new business expense policy.”
The Texas tab, from October, is among the charges that caught state auditors’ attention as they scrutinized Mill Creek’s finances, including Polizzotto’s spending since she started working there in 2015.
The City Council placed Polizzotto on paid leave last month, but declined to say why. The state audit came out two days later. Auditors issued a finding, an accounting term for a significant financial issue.
Attempts to reach Polizzotto for this story were unsuccessful.
Receipts detail how that money was spent. The documents were obtained recently by The Daily Herald through public records requests to the city and the state Auditor’s Office.
City policies forbid using taxpayer money to buy alcohol, even if the cost is reimbursed. That was the case long before the city updated its internal spending rules in April. Yet receipts show about two dozen booze charges on Polizzotto’s city credit card, including the Texas trip, as well as others in Spokane in 2017, Mill Creek in 2016 and Seattle in 2015.
To cover the Texas charges, Polizzotto wrote a personal check in mid-December.
Reimbursement for at least one other tab came in nearly two years after the fact.
A gin martini and a beer charged on Polizzotto’s city credit card at a Mill Creek restaurant in April 2016 weren’t paid back until February of this year. Other city-paid tabs, including alcohol and generous tips from 2016 and 2017, also were repaid in February.
By the time Polizzitto signed the first reimbursement check late last year, a state audit team had already been in Mill Creek for weeks, poring over city records as part of the most recent audit. They were following up on a 2017 recommendation for Mill Creek to adopt stricter policies for business meals and gifts recognizing employee accomplishments. The recent audit unearthed itemized receipts not initially provided when the city paid for the steakhouse dinner and other questionable public expenses.
The bulk of the expenses at issue were made on the city manager’s credit card, including $269 for alcohol and another $955 for meals. That spending spanned the tenure of three different city finance directors who reported to the city manager.
Financial experts later tracked down receipts showing that Polizzotto charged meals to room service at the Davenport Grand during a business trip to Spokane in August 2017, even though the conference included those meals. Room service charged to Mill Creek at a Seattle hotel in September 2015 were labeled as meetings with other professionals at a city-manager conference.
Councilman Mike Todd said Tuesday that the expenses detailed in the public records deserve a closer look.
“This is not how I would spend public money,” Todd said. “This is not how taxpayers would expect us to spend public money. This does not look like an isolated ‘oops.’ I’d like to know what was behind it.”
The city’s new spending policies for employees set caps on daily expenses, “eliminating the need for detailed receipts, except in specially noted circumstances,” city officials wrote in an official response to the state audit.
Todd said he would insist on reviewing those policies to see if they are adequate.
Mayor Pam Pruitt referred questions about Polizzotto’s spending to the city attorney and the interim city manager.
Polizzotto has been absent from work since April, citing illness.
Since May, the City Council has called a series of special meetings with closed-door sessions to discuss personnel matters and potential litigation. It’s unclear whether either of those issues relate to the city manager. Each qualifies as an exemption under open public meeting laws.
One of the special meetings took place June 8, a Friday evening, when the council issued a unanimous statement defending Polizzotto against allegations in a weekly newspaper. The statement expressed hope that she would return to work soon. A week and a half later, however, the council placed her on 45 days paid administrative leave, effective immediately.
Polizzotto joined the city in April 2015. She impressed other city leaders with her background as a former assistant attorney general in Alaska and small-town city manager in Georgia. The council tasked her with reforming the culture at City Hall and balancing the budget.
The top administrator for the town of 20,000 people commands a base salary of $173,825. That nearly matches Gov. Jay Inslee’s $175,353 annual pay. The Mill Creek city manager also receives a $300 monthly car allowance and last year got a one-time payment of $16,000 labeled as an “employee award.”
Polizzotto’s absence is proving costly.
Since placing her on leave, Mill Creek has contracted with former city manager Bob Stowe to fill the job on an interim basis for up to three months, according to public records. Stowe’s contract with Mill Creek pays him a retainer of $5,500 per week. He’s expected to put in at least 20 hours on the job each week. Under the agreement, he is owed $275 per hour “at a minimum rate” beyond that.