Mukilteo mayor’s spending becomes a $10,000 legal question

The City Council has voted 4-3 to get outside legal advice to investigate contract practices.

Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson

Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson

MUKILTEO — The Mukilteo City Council has voted to hire its own lawyer to investigate whether Mayor Jennifer Gregerson overstepped her authority by signing off on contracts without council approval.

On a 4-3 vote Monday, the council approved spending an initial $10,000 for an attorney to determine if there was wrongdoing. The money will come from the council’s legal budget.

Council President Steve Schmalz, led the move that spawned an hourlong debate. He said there is a conflict by relying on internal advice from the city attorney.

“The mayor has created contracts without council approval. There are a number of them that are in question at this point,” Schmalz said Tuesday. “These were serious violations of state law and we want to get some legal advice. If the council looks the other way on these things then we aren’t doing our duty as council members.”

Schmalz and fellow council members Scott Whelpley, Anna Rohrbough and Christine Cook supported the action. In August, the same four members passed a vote of no confidence in Gregerson’s leadership because she had not informed the council of severance payments and other spending decisions. The no-confidence vote was not binding.

Councilmembers Bob Champion, Richard Emery and Sarah Kneller voted against hiring outside legal counsel. All three said they wanted to wait until the State Auditor’s Office completed and delivered its review of the city’s books to the council.

“My understanding is that they are very objective and that they will give non-biased feedback,” Kneller said. “Having that first step done by the state auditor would be fiscally responsible of us.”

Emery agreed.

“Many of these issues have been bought to the attention of auditors,” Emery said. “The suggestion is premature until the audit is finished.”

Cook, who favored the motion, said the auditor’s report would be a “good data point.”

“Getting legal counsel is beneficial as a second data point,” Cook said.

Gregerson said she has been upfront with answering the council’s questions.

“I agreed with the three council members who suggested we let the state auditor do their review,” Gregerson said Tuesday. “I think this is a waste of money. I’ve laid out the facts the best I can and am ready to move forward. I was following a process that had been in place since before I began as mayor. We’re not going to do it this way again.”

Whelpley’s public records request netted information on the severance agreements, which show that some ex-workers got three months’ pay. At least one who resigned received five weeks of salary.

Another point of contention was the payment of three months’ pay plus $6,355 of tuition reimbursement to Marko Liias, a state senator who worked as a city policy analyst until his job was eliminated by the council in December 2017.

Gregerson, a former city councilwoman, was elected mayor of the city of 21,000 in November 2013 and re-elected in 2017.

Mukilteo has a mayor-council form of government. The mayor and seven council members are part-time, non-partisan elected officials. The mayor is the CEO and the official and ceremonial head of the city. The City Council is the legislative body, responsible for enacting laws and regulations, policy direction and approving payment of all city monies, according to the city’s website.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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