Political posturing over the settlement of a involving and two council members came out into the open last week, as plans to review the performance of the city manager behind closed doors were made public at a Sept. 6 City Council meeting.
As the meeting drew to a close, two contrasting approaches were discussed on what action City Council should take after City Hall was forced to into a $1 million settlement with former employee.
Councilman Bruce Bassett asked in a prepared statement for time at City Council's next public meeting on Sept. 19 to vet three bids by legal consultants selected by the City Manager's Office to review the city's administrative "policies, procedures and work climate."
"With the Lindell lawsuit behind us, I'm not happy about the outcome but I know there's no use crying over spilt milk," Bassett said. "Now's the time to move forward and assure ourselves and the public we'll do everything we can to promote a transparent and healthy government."
In response, Councilmen Mike Cero and Mike Grady requested the council should conclude the matter at the next City Council meeting by holding a review of Conrad's job performance behind closed doors.
City Manager Rich Conrad dismissed former Deputy City Manager Londi Lindell in 2008, but Lindell fought back with a claiming sex harassment and retaliation in the workplace, naming Conrad, Mayor Jim Pearman and Deputy Mayor El Jahncke — among others — as defendants in the lawsuit. The details of the settlement, , were approved and publicized in mid-July ().
Bassett also asked City Hall to produce a report on reviewing the city's compliance with the state's Public Records Act and offer a proposal for hiring a city communications officer, with a special emphasis on transparency. The city was , plus attorney's fees, in the lawsuit. A hearing to decide attorney's fees — which could cost the city an additional $180,000 — is scheduled for tomorrow (Sept. 13) at 10 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Seattle before Hon. James L. Robart.
In contrast to seeking outside advice on the matter, Councilmen Cero and Grady sought to narrow the discussion to what they viewed as facts already revealed from the Lindell lawsuit. In an Aug. 25 letter obtained by Mercer Island Patch (click here to see the letter), the councilmen gave several reasons for requesting the meeting, as authorized by state law under RCW 42.30.110 (1)(g).
One of those reasons included their "understanding" that Conrad and Human Resources Director Kryss Segle did not follow proper procedure in handling an employee's use of a publicly-owned computer to view pornographic material.
"The federal litigation did not 'clear the names' of Rich Conrad, Kryss Segle and other staff," wrote Cero and Grady.
They also requested, due to what they called "the sensitive nature of the discussion," that the meeting be held without the participation of Conrad or other City Hall personnel.
In the 10-minute discussion that followed, Mayor Pearman confirmed that an executive session was scheduled, but sought to include some of Bassett's proposed ideas into the next meeting's agenda. Also scheduled for Sept. 19 is a discussion to repurpose approximately $2 million in general fund savings from the city's sewer lake line replacement project (click here for a document describing uses for the money agreed to at a June city council planning meeting).
"We need to know exactly what's being proposed, what we could potentially take advantage of," said Councilman Dan Grausz. "I want us to go into this with our eyes wide open."
It was unclear from Tuesday's discussion where funding for an outside review would come from.
"We may move some stuff around," Pearman said. "We will make sure you're crisp."
Word of the executive session spread around the Island, prompting to weigh in against meeting behind closed doors on such an important matter. Bertlin has in her campaign to unseat Deputy Mayor Jahncke. As city council mayor and deputy mayor, both Pearman and Jahncke set the agenda for each council meeting.
"Where is the transparency we deserve?" she asked in press release posted on her campaign website. "We’ve had months of silence from our City Council instead. It is time the community hear what is being discussed, who is accountable and what corrective actions will be taken to ensure that the City of Mercer Island does not face similar suits in the future. Anything less is completely unacceptable. Will the City Council ever quit hiding?”
Toby Nixon, president of the open-government advocacy group Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the City Council is not required to hold a performance review behind closed doors — but that does not rule out a contractual agreement between the employer and employee to shield the review from public.
"(State law) does say some things must be done in public," he said. "Final action, including disciplining an employee, must be done in public."