Electeds split on accountability audit findings

Officials also discuss potential government change
By Brandon Gustafson | Mar 13, 2019

The Washington State Auditors Office published the accountability portion for the city of Mukilteo’s 2017 annual audit late last week, and to the approval of some and displeasure to others, there were no findings.

Councilmembers met with auditors in January for an exit interview, but the results were not made official until last week.

Councilmembers asked auditors to review severance and separation agreements that Mayor Jennifer Gregerson signed off on with 12 former city employees, totaling more than $250,000. Those agreements never came before the council, and some differed from the city’s policy.

Councilmember Scott Whelpley made a public records request, and brought those contracts before the council. That night, council approved a motion that all severance and separation agreements have to come before the council.

Since then, the majority of council voted in no confidence of Gregerson’s leadership, and to obtain outside legal counsel to review the case.

In a management letter from the auditors, the organization found Mukilteo had no set procedure for what payments could be approved only by the mayor or what types of payments required approval by the City Council, and suggested the council pass an ordinance clarifying their August motion.

Some councilmembers disagreed with the report, and thought Gregerson signing those contracts was illegal. Auditors couldn’t conclude that due in part to there being no Washington case law on the matter.

Gregerson has said that she was continuing past practices, and denied any wrongdoing.

Now, with the absence of a full-time city administrator in the city’s executive department, there have been discussions on whether to change the form of government Mukilteo operates under from a mayor-council government to a city manager-council government.

In the latter form, an unelected manager would run the day-to-day operations of the city. There would still be seven elected councilmembers, with one councilmember selected by their peers as mayor – which is more of an honorific role. One example of this type of government is the city of Mill Creek

The Beacon reached out to all eight of Mukilteo’s elected officials to get their thoughts on the audit, as well as potentially changing Mukilteo’s form of government.

Due to space constraints, we were only able to fit responses from four of the eight elected officials in this story. Look for a second part, with responses from the other four, in next week’s paper.

 

Mayor Jennifer Gregerson

Gregerson, the first female mayor of Mukilteo, is in the second year of her second term as mayor. She is running for Snohomish County Council, and if elected would vacate the last two years of her term.

Gregerson said she was happy there were no major findings in the report.

“I am glad to see that the decades-long practices of the city were affirmed,” she said.

Gregerson also said she looked forward to helping councilmembers clarify their contract agreement policy, and to ensure Mukilteo has documented all the procedures it’s now following.

Gregerson thinks most Mukilteo citizens would prefer to keep the current form of government.

“I think the current form of government is a good one. I think voters want the choice of electing the mayor, rather than having the City Council choose,” she said.

 

Council President Christine Cook

When the council voted to obtain legal counsel, Council President Christine Cook said the auditor’s report was just one data point they could use “to help us understand the implications of taxpayer funds being spent without council knowledge.”

Cook said she still believes that.

“The more I learn about the payments, the more convinced I become that state law regarding this is clear,” she said. “The council did not delegate contracting authority to the mayor; therefore, it was her duty to come to the council with these contracts before signing them.”

Cook said it’s the responsibility of all elected officials to comply with laws and policies, and that residents have the right to feel confident that officials are following the rules.

Cook said the conversation about changing Mukilteo’s government is a good one to have.

“It may reduce the politics that all too often seep into the decisions and daily operations of the city. A well-qualified city manager could potentially work through several administrations, and that consistency could benefit Mukilteo.”

Cook said the council will continue to discuss this in a timely fashion before potentially bringing it before voters.

 

Council Vice President Anna Rohrbough

Rohrbough has been one of Gregerson’s more vocal opponents over the last year. She is also Gregerson’s opponent for Snohomish County Council.

“The finger is now being pointed at this current council for their lack of a clear policy, which is absolutely a false accusation by the mayor and deflection of the truth,” she said. “Years ago, this mayor was advised by our city attorney to bring these contracts to the council for approval as per RCW law and our policy. The mayor made the decision to ignore this legal advice.

“I ask the question: How many policies do we need to set before the person violating them will be held accountable?”

Rohrbough said the council will meet with their attorney in April to discuss next steps, and wants to continue the discussion of changing Mukilteo’s government.

“At this moment I don’t have enough information of the pros and cons that would surely result from changing our form of government, but what I can say is that I will consider what is best for the people of this city, not just today but 20 years from now.”

 

Councilmember Richard Emery

Councilmember Richard Emery has been in the minority of some recent council decisions in regards to issues with the mayor.

Emery voted in favor of the council approving severance and separation agreements, but voted against the no-confidence vote and obtaining legal counsel.

Emery said he was pleased with the report.

“The thing to focus on is it was a clean audit. Clean as it gets,” he said. “There’s always some comments because no one is perfect, and no one gets an absolute clean audit. The biggest thing that auditors said was we made good progress on their past suggestions. I think that’s the main story here.”

Emery wants city staff to have an annual review of city procedures “so we won’t be in this position again.”

Emery said the main argument he’s heard for changing Mukilteo’ government is to take politics out of things, but he remains unconvinced.

“My understanding is as long as people are involved, there will be politics,” he said.

Emery said he thinks recent policies are directed at Gregerson, and not the mayor position.

He added that Mukilteo needs both a full-time mayor and city administrator.

“Changing the government is shortsighted – it’s a way to save money.”

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