Concerns arise over mayor's newest hire

By Sara Bruestle | Jun 11, 2014

Mayor Jennifer Gregerson’s hire of her friend and 21st District legislator Marko Liias as the city’s new policy analyst has some in Mukilteo concerned.

Sen. Marko Liias, 32, started work as Mukilteo’s policy analyst on May 27.

Some question whether Liias will be able to serve the 21st District full time and also work for the city full time. They say it is not only a conflict of interest, but one of time itself.

“They picked Marko, knowing he couldn’t work full time and it’s a full-time position,” said Christine Awad Schmalz, wife of Councilmember Steve Schmalz. “It’s discriminatory, knowing he’d have 100 days off and not pick the other candidate who could work full time. This really reeks of cronyism.”

“He’s not the most qualified if he can’t be at work.”

As a senator, Liias must spend 105 days in odd years and 60 days in even years in regular legislative sessions. Special sessions can keep him in Olympia for up to 30 more days.

Council Vice President Linda Grafer said she is “uncomfortable” with the hire.

“I am concerned that the 100 plus days he will need to be away will cause unnecessary hardship on other staff members and will jeopardize the smooth running of the city and also his ability to fairly represent Mukilteo.”

As Washington has a “citizen legislature,” most state legislators have full-time jobs in addition to their elected position, Liias said.

Liias said he checked with a member of the State Legislative Ethics Board and an attorney for the Senate to make sure his job with the city wouldn’t be an ethical or regulatory conflict.

As a city employee, he said that if a bill concerned only Mukilteo, he would recuse himself from the vote. Though, Liias said he’s never seen one that solely concerned Mukilteo.

“If issues solely affect Mukilteo, those are issues I shouldn’t be participating in,” Liias said. “Just because you work for a city doesn’t mean you can’t vote for anything in the state.”

It’s no secret that Gregerson and Liias are close friends and that they have supported each other in their political campaigns. Liias is also an adviser on the mayor’s Transition Committee.

Even so, Grafer said she is concerned of the “appearance of fairness” surrounding the creation of the position and his selection to fill it.

“[It] does seem a little unsettling,” she said. “Perception oftentimes is reality.”

Assistant to the City Administrator Krystn McArthur, who held the position for about seven years, said she was terminated without cause.

Gregerson said that though it may appear so, she did not work with Liias to get him a job with the city as a political nor friendly favor.

“I think that he’s a really qualified candidate, and he’s going to serve the city and our community well,” she said.

Since Gregerson is friends with Liias, she said she didn’t participate in the hiring process until the 15 candidates were narrowed down to two.

She and Interim City Administrator Rex Caldwell then interviewed the top candidates and agreed that Liias was the most qualified.

“Marko was clearly the top candidate,” Caldwell wrote in an email. “I am confident the city hired the best, most qualified person for the job.”

Gregerson said she and Caldwell are still negotiating with Liias on how to deal with those months he will be in legislative session.

“My desire is to take unpaid leave, so I can focus on the work in Olympia,” Liias said. “I’m not double dipping and taking a salary when I’m not in the office.

“I think to be fair to those who are paying my salary in Mukilteo, it would make sense to take that leave.”

The policy analyst position pays $65,400 a year. Liias’ salary as a state senator is $42,100 a year.

Liias said the fact that he’d only be working part-time should actually be “attractive” to Mukilteo.

“It makes sense to have a part-time person,” he said. “They’re getting most of a full-time position and not having to pay a full-time salary. It saves the city some money.”

But Gregerson said the administration may take the salary savings and hire a consultant to do some of the work when Liias is away in Olympia.

Some question the fairness of working around Liias’ senatorial schedule when other candidates were available to work full-time.

“Retrofitting the job description to fit into Marko' s schedule is totally unacceptable,” Christine Awad Schmalz wrote in an email. “If you cannot be at work for over 100 days a year, the job should go to someone who can be there full time.

“I expected more professional behavior from our mayor, but this is just like high school antics.”

Councilmember Steve Schmalz agreed.

“The council approved a full-time policy analyst position, not a part-time position,” he said. “Sen. Liias cannot meet the obligations of the full-time job.”

The policy analyst replaces the assistant to the city administrator, which Gregerson said are essentially the same job. The assistant position had been vacant since April 15.

As the policy analyst, Liias will provide support in the Executive Department, manage the city newsletter and other communications, and take on any other projects that had been done by the assistant to the city administrator.

Liias has many years of experience with policy analysis and communications, working as a state representative and senator.

He also worked as a communications adviser for U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s campaign in 2012 and served on the Mukilteo City Council for two years.

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