No rules barred city’s secret severance payouts, auditors say

But the state suggests that the Mukilteo City Council clear up lines of authority with a new law.

Jennifer Gregerson

Jennifer Gregerson

MUKILTEO — Mayor Jennifer Gregerson approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance payments to departing employees without telling the City Council because there were no clear rules that prevented her from doing so, state auditors have concluded.

The city had no procedures in place detailing types of payments that could be approved solely by the mayor and those requiring approval by the council, auditors wrote in a management letter to city leaders released last week.

In their letter, auditors suggest the council could erase any confusion by passing an ordinance containing the rules it wants the mayor to follow. They also recommended the council make sure a written agreement is prepared for each separation payment.

Councilmembers who wanted the state agency to look into the payments disagreed with the findings. They remain convinced it was never legal for Gregerson to approve them without their knowledge and approval, and wonder how auditors couldn’t reach the same conclusion.

“I’m disappointed and disgusted that state law isn’t relevant,” said Councilman Scott Whelpley, who first discovered the severance agreements with a public records request.

Councilwoman Anna Rohrbough expressed frustration at the suggestion that they need to pass another law.

“We can make policies on top of policies, but if they don’t follow them, it doesn’t make a difference,” she said. “I want to do what’s best for the community and I’m not sure what that is yet.”

Gregerson was elected mayor in 2013 and re-elected in 2017. She and Rohrbough are currently running for a seat on the Snohomish County Council.

The mayor said last week she wasn’t surprised at the outcome.

“The auditors said some cities do it the way our city has done it for a long time, and some cities do it the way the City Council wants to do it,” she said. “I’ve always felt that I’ve followed the advice that I was given and some council members are very confident about their interpretation.”

Since 2012, the mayor has inked a dozen severance agreements under which a total of $252,936 was paid out, according to auditors.

Councilmembers were unaware of the payments until last summer when Whelpley obtained and released copies of agreements revealing what some ex-workers received.

In August, council members voted to require all future severance and separation agreements, labor agreements and memorandums of understanding be brought to them for approval.

Gregerson has done so. She said she’s now “happy to help them comply with the auditor’s recommendation” if they want.

That’s not the path Whelpley said he intends to take.

He said the next step should be to ask voters to change the city’s form of government.

In the next few weeks, he said he hopes the council will agree to put a measure on the November ballot to replace the strong-mayor structure with a council-city manager form. Under that scenario, the mayor would no longer be an independently elected position and Mukilteo would be guided by a city manager who reports to the City Council.

“What’s happened here is basically there is no adult supervision, and now we have to do it in order to keep this city safe,” Whelpley said.

In the meantime, the council is awaiting a report from an attorney it hired to investigate the mayor’s actions.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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