As citizen heckle, Mill Creek extends manager’s paid leave

The City Council ignored strident calls to fire Rebecca Polizzotto, citing an ongoing workplace investigation.

Rebecca Polizzotto

Rebecca Polizzotto

MILL CREEK — Person after person stood up from the audience to insist that Mill Creek fire its embattled city manager, Rebecca Polizzotto.

Right then and there, at Thursday night’s special council meeting.

“I don’t think you can wait — this is a crisis,” said David Wood, who held administrative posts in southern California cities before retiring in Mill Creek.

That was one of the milder statements.

Discontent has persisted among staff during Polizzotto’s three years at the city. It was only this spring, after complaints from the police chief and three directors, that she was placed on administrative leave, so the city could hire an outside investigator to look into allegations of incivility, bullying and more.

After hearing from the audience, the council retreated to a nearly two-hour closed-door session. They emerged and, as some in the crowd yelled insults such as “cowards” and “disgusting,” they voted to extend Polizzotto’s paid leave by another three weeks. It had been set to expire Friday, but now runs until Aug. 24.

“We are not cowards — no, we are not,” Mayor Pro Tem Brian Holtzclaw said. “If you knew the information that we know ….”

Before the vote, Scott Missall, an attorney who works for the city, said the workplace investigation that started in May is ongoing but should be finished soon. The results are necessary before the council acts, he said.

Earlier in the meeting, some of the 10 or so speakers demanded that Mayor Pam Pruitt and other council members resign for failing to listen to employees. They included former City Councilman Lynn Sordel, who told his past colleagues, “You cannot hide in Mill Creek.”

“You blatantly ignored very obvious signs of problems, and the fact that your community members had to bring this matter into the public arena sheds even more light on your ineptitude and disregard,” said Sordel, who works as Lynnwood’s parks director.

Pam Olson told the council it was painful to leave her job of nearly 19 years as Mill Creek’s recreation supervisor, “primarily because of my experience working with the city manager.” She said council members never seemed interested in why she, or others, were heading toward the exits.

“You have shown and proven that you have total disrespect for the employees you are responsible for,” Olson said.

Larry Mayer, a retired aerospace manager who lives in town, also delivered blistering comments. But he did give Polizzotto some credit for wise personnel decisions: She hired three of the four directors who would end up filing complaints about her in April.

Police Chief Greg Elwin, finance manager Peggy Lauerman and city spokeswoman Joni Kirk happened to be sitting to one side of the room. Most of the 50 or more people in the audience stood up to applaud them.

Polizzotto’s work troubles have been piling up.

She had been out sick for most of April and hasn’t returned to work since.

Things took a dive on June 19, when the City Council placed her on 45 days of administrative leave. Two days later, the state Auditor’s Office released a finding that faulted the city for lax spending protocols. The audit highlighted purchases on city credit cards with a questionable public purpose, particularly alcohol and business meals charged to the city manager’s card.

Mill Creek’s city leaders tend to describe Polizzotto as bright, even brilliant. Many critics concede she made a good first impression.

The City Council has mostly supported her, even as staff complaints mounted.

Details of the directors’ complaints are outlined in 637 pages of documents obtained by The Daily Herald last week under public records laws. One of the documents is an email note that Elwin, the police chief, wrote to himself, documenting frustrations from a March council meeting. Polizzotto had praised other managers’ hard work in public to the council members, in contrast with criticism he recalled her making in private.

“An observer with knowledge of RP’s treatment of people shared that it was like an abused family that the public only sees as happy and united on the outside; the beatings occur behind closed doors,” Elwin wrote. “I couldn’t agree more … she wants the council to see what she wants them to see and not what’s really happening.”

HR director Laura Orlando, in her written complaint, called Polizzotto, “the clearest example of a workplace bully that I have ever seen.”

Mill Creek has a rough history with city managers. About half have been forced to resign since the city incorporated in 1983.

That happened to Polizzotto’s predecessor, Ken Armstrong. He quit in early 2015, more than a month after the council passed a resolution stating its intent to fire him and placed him on paid leave.

The city launched a nationwide search for a replacement.

Polizzotto was hired a few months later. At the time, she was an assistant attorney general in Alaska with past experience as a small-town city manager in Georgia. Her salary for administering Mill Creek, a city of 20,000 people, approaches $174,000.

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

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