MUKILTEO — The Mukilteo City Council is moving on its plan to hire a private law firm to investigate whether past spending practices by Mayor Jennifer Gregerson exceeded her executive authority.
On a 4-2 vote earlier this week, the council approved an appropriation of up to $40,000 for lawyer fees. Of that, $10,000 was passed as an amendment in the 2018 budget. The rest is part of the 2019 budget that’s still in the works.
Bottom line: they are good to go to hire Issaquah law firm Kenyon Disend, which specializes in municipal law.
The action comes days after Gregerson launched her campaign for a seat on the Snohomish County Council in 2019.
Gregerson was not at the meeting due to being on an already scheduled vacation.
At issue is Gregerson’s failure to keep the council in the loop on her handling of the hiring and firing of at-will employees. Specifically, the council had not been made aware that those workers signed employment agreements that resulted in severance payments.
Gregerson said in the past she was following “a process that had been in place since before I began as mayor.”
As part of a yearly review, the state auditor’s office is in the process of examining the severance payments and contracts that were done without the council’s approval.
“The council has contracting authority, plain and simple. The mayor does not,” Council President Steve Schmalz said. “So when the mayor goes into a contract without the council’s authority, that’s a violation.”
He and council members Scott Whelpley, Anna Rohrbough and Vice President Christine Cook voted to spend the money on an outside law firm. The same quartet approved an initial expenditure of $10,000 in October. And in August, the same four members passed a vote of no confidence in Gregerson’s leadership.
Councilmembers Bob Champion and Richard Emery voted against the motion Monday, as they did in October. Councilwoman Sarah Kneller, who was absent, previously sided with them.
Emery and Champion both want to get the findings from the state auditor before taking any steps.
Champion called Monday’s vote “putting the cart before the horse.”
Emery agreed, saying. “This is premature.”
Whelpley said it is the council’s duty “to get those dollars back if they were misappropriated.”
His public records request netted information on the severance agreements showing that some ex-workers got three months’ pay. At least one who resigned received five weeks of salary.
“This didn’t just fall out of the sky. This has been happening for years … $200,000 out the door,” Whelpley said. “The wasteful spending that’s going on in the city stops today.”
When contacted by phone, Gregerson said she “looked forward to the auditor recommendations.”
“I think it’s a waste of money to spend up to $40,000 on an outside attorney to do the exact same thing,” she said.
Gregerson said the auditor’s office scheduled a meeting with her last week.
“Then they canceled it and said they were waiting to hear from an assistant attorney general for answers to their questions,” she said. “Then the next day they emailed me and said they are not authorized to pursue their own independent legal opinion as an agency and wanted to know if I would allow them to ask our city attorney to offer an opinion on the severances.”
There is an assistant attorney general assigned to the state auditor’s office who is consulted as needed.
Schmalz said he contacted law firms in Snohomish and King counties. He recommended Kenyon Disend for its litigation experience and hourly rate.
“Our own city attorney has a conflict of interest because they’re a potential witness. We have to get to the bottom of this,” Schmalz said before the meeting.
Gregerson, 40, a former city councilwoman, was elected as mayor in November 2013 and re-elected in 2017. She plans to stay on as mayor during next year’s campaign in County Council District 2, which spans Everett, Tulalip and Mukilteo. The County Council post will pay nearly $127,000 in 2020.
Mukilteo has a mayor-council form of government. The mayor and seven council members are nonpartisan 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 all payments, according to the city’s website.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.