County leaves pub­lic in dark about set­tle­ment spend­ing

The News Tribune - - Front Page - BY SEAN ROBIN­SON srobin­son@the­new­stri­bune.com

On Nov. 14, 2017, Pierce County Coun­cil mem­bers gath­ered for their usual Tues­day meet­ing and unan­i­mously ap­proved an item buried at the bot­tom of that week’s con­sent agenda.

There was no way for the pub­lic to know, but the coun­cil ef­fec­tively agreed to spend $680,000 of pub­lic money without re­veal­ing the amount or the pur­pose.

The money capped off a set­tle­ment agree­ment signed three days af­ter the coun­cil’s vote. It went to Lynelle An­der­son, a vet­eran sher­iff’s deputy who filed a claim for dam­ages in mid-2017 that al­leged a longterm pat­tern of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and ha­rass­ment. She de­clined to com­ment for this story.

Coun­cil mem­bers ad­mit­ted this week they didn’t know how much the county spent to set­tle the An­der­son claim. They also don’t know how much was spent to set­tle claims filed by other par­ties, and they haven’t known since De­cem­ber 2016.

The an­swer: $3.3 mil­lion for 187 claims. The News Tri­bune ob­tained the in­for­ma­tion Fri­day with a pub­lic dis­clo­sure re­quest.

Records as­so­ci­ated with the $680,000 set­tle­ment in­di­cate that An­der­son, a 19-year vet­eran who han­dles the de­part­ment’s cold cases, among other du­ties, was de­nied train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, given con­flict­ing as­sign­ments and or­ders by dif­fer­ent com­man­ders and sys­tem­at­i­cally marginal­ized be­cause of her gen­der.

Two of those com­man­ders, Capt. Scott Miel­car­ick and Lt. Rusty Wilder, faced an ad­min­is­tra­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion tied to their treat­ment of An­der­son. Miel­car­ick has been placed on a paid ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sign­ment, and Wilder has been as­signed to a dif­fer­ent area of the sher­iff’s de­part­ment, ac­cord­ing to sher­iff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.

An­der­son en­dured de­mean­ing com­ments, such as “do you still have your uterus?” when she re­turned to work fol­low­ing a health prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to records. An­other com­man­der told her she was lucky to have a job with the de­part­ment, or she’d likely be on wel­fare.

The state­ments ap­pear in an in­ter­view of An­der­son con­duct-

ed dur­ing the course of an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. An­other in­ci­dent de­scribed in records in­di­cates that she faced un­wel­come ad­vances from a col­league who tried to pur­sue a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with her.

The News Tri­bune first learned of the An­der­son set­tle­ment from sources un­af­fil­i­ated with county gov­ern­ment, and re­quested the as­so­ci­ated records via pub­lic dis­clo­sure.

Com­par­ing the year-old records to records of coun­cil ac­tion re­veals an empty space: Mem­bers didn’t take a pub­lic vote to ap­prove the An­der­son pay­out. Their Nov. 14 vote sim­ply granted “set­tle­ment au­thor­ity” to le­gal ne­go­tia­tors.

No num­bers were dis­closed. No names were men­tioned. The claim was ref­er­enced by a num­ber.

In essence, the coun­cil’s vote gave le­gal ne­go­tia­tors an undis­closed range of amounts to set­tle the claim, without dis­clos­ing num­bers or any other de­tails to the pub­lic. The range was de­ter­mined in an ex­ec­u­tive ses­sion at­tended by coun­cil mem­bers, but no pub­lic vote tied to the pay­out ever fol­lowed.

The ap­proach rep­re­sents stan­dard pro­ce­dure for the county, but it leaves the pub­lic in the dark about the scale of as­so­ci­ated spend­ing.

“How can they spend nearly $700,000 of pub­lic money without tak­ing a vote?” said Toby Nixon, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Coali­tion for Open Gov­ern­ment, and a mem­ber of the Kirk­land City Coun­cil. “You can’t spend money that hasn’t been bud­geted. I won­der what they con­sider to be the bud­get au­thor­ity for that.”

The set­tle­ments in­volv­ing An­der­son and oth­ers weren’t dis­closed to the pub­lic, partly be­cause the coun­cil’s stan­dard pro­ce­dure didn’t re­quire di­rect votes to spend the money, and partly be­cause the only win­dow that would al­low the pub­lic to see any record of the spend­ing has been closed for two years.

That’s the last time that coun­cil mem­bers re­ceived a quar­terly re­port from the county’s risk man­age­ment di­vi­sion that summed up re­cent set­tle­ments of claims and law­suits.

Coun­cil Chair­man Doug Richard­son told The News Tri­bune in a re­cent in­ter­view that he didn’t re­al­ize those quar­terly re­ports weren’t tak­ing place.

“Risk man­age­ment is sup­posed to pro­vide re­ports on a quar­terly ba­sis, come up to the coun­cil and in a pub­lic meet­ing talk about out­stand­ing claims,” he said. “I’m ad­mit­ting to you that it hasn’t been hap­pen­ing. And I will now take steps to fol­low up to make sure that that’s oc­cur­ring.”

Claims for dam­ages, as­so­ci­ated law­suits and pay­outs are a fact of life for lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Dif­fer­ent agen­cies ap­proach them with dif­fer­ent lev­els of pub­lic dis­clo­sure. Typ­i­cally, agen­cies al­low set­tle­ments to be han­dled without a sep­a­rate pub­lic vote, if the pay­out falls below a cer­tain thresh­old.

In Pierce County, that thresh­old is $250,000, out­lined in the county code, which states that, “All pro­posed set­tle­ments in ex­cess of $250,000 shall be sub­mit­ted by the Ex­ec­u­tive to the County Coun­cil for ap­proval.”

Records of the 187 claims set­tled by the county since De­cem­ber 2016 show that most cost less than $10,000. How­ever, three claims, in­clud­ing the An­der­son set­tle­ment, ex­ceeded the $250,000 thresh­old. Col­lec­tively, they cost tax­pay­ers about $1.6 mil­lion. The coun­cil didn’t take di­rect votes on any of them. The pub­lic had no no­tice, other than votes grant­ing un­spec­i­fied “set­tle­ment au­thor­ity,” with no dol­lar fig­ures at­tached.

The city of Ta­coma sees its share of set­tle­ments, and pro­vides more pub­lic in­for­ma­tion about them than the county.

For ex­am­ple, City Coun­cil mem­bers voted on pay­outs for a pair of set­tle­ments on April 24. The items ap­peared on the meet­ing agenda be­fore­hand. The par­ties were named, and the pre­cise pay­ments — $35,000 and $174,000 — were in­cluded. Coun­cil mem­bers voted on both items.

The county’s process is more opaque. Richard­son said he couldn’t re­call vot­ing pub­licly on a spe­cific set­tle­ment amount dur­ing his six-year ten­ure.

Coun­cil­man Derek Young served on the Gig Har­bor City Coun­cil be­fore his elec­tion to the County Coun­cil. He re­called the city han­dling set­tle­ments in a man­ner sim­i­lar to Ta­coma.

“At some point there would fi­nally be an ap­proval,” he said. “Ei­ther the rat­i­fi­ca­tion or di­rec­tion to au­tho­rize the mayor to ex­e­cute it on be­half of the city.”

When Young first joined the County Coun­cil in 2014, he was taken aback by the county’s ap­proach to set­tle­ments.

“I re­mem­ber won­der­ing why we didn’t have some re­quire­ment to adopt the fi­nal con­clu­sion,” he said, adding that he would sup­port a change in county pro­ce­dure that would al­low a pub­lic vote on large set­tle­ments.

“I ab­so­lutely would,” he said. “I think it’s prob­a­bly more ap­pro­pri­ate to do it at the time rather than hav­ing a re­port.”

HOW CAN THEY SPEND NEARLY $700,000 OF PUB­LIC MONEY WITHOUT TAK­ING A VOTE? YOU CAN’T SPEND MONEY THAT HASN’T BEEN BUD­GETED. I WON­DER WHAT THEY CON­SIDER TO BE THE BUD­GET AU­THOR­ITY FOR THAT.

Toby Nixon, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Coali­tion for Open Gov­ern­ment, and a mem­ber of the Kirk­land City Coun­cil

JOSHUA BES­SEX jbes­sex@gate­line.com

A Ta­coma City Coun­cil meet­ing agenda from April 24, 2018 (up­per left) shows how the city in­forms the pub­lic about le­gal set­tle­ments. The par­ties and the dol­lar amounts are listed prior to the coun­cil’s vote. A Pierce County Coun­cil meet­ing agenda from Nov. 14, 2017, shows a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. No amounts or par­ties are listed. The claim refers to “set­tle­ment au­thor­ity” without specifics. The county claim was set­tled on Nov. 17, 2017, for $680,000, a fig­ure the pub­lic never saw.

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