“There is an actual and justiciable controversy as to whether the City’s liability is based on dishonest, fraudulent, or criminal acts…”
The newly elected city council in the City of SeaTac in Washington State is suffering from one of the classic dilemmas of modern local government. The recent blow-out elections in this city delivered a new crop of politicians in January with high expectations of fixing the problems they discovered in their city. However, these newly elected officials are running into a dysfunctional and bureaucratic quagmire. How do they wade through this quagmire to fix the obvious problems they exposed during the election?
For many years I have argued that there are three dominant political parties in our state. There are the Democrat and Republican parties, and there is the Bureaucracy party (with a capital “B” for Bloated). Often we believe that we can change government by replacing our elected officials. However, that is just a necessary first step. The next requirement is to regain control over the bureaucracy which controls the true levers of power.
This is particularly important in cities and other local governments
which have a weak mayor or weak council type governing structure (like SeaTac). These organizationally weak political structures tend to shift the majority of the power and executive type decisions into the hands of unelected officials. Timid politicians prefer these structures because they can shift the decisions and blame onto the bureaucrats or the “process.” Bureaucrats prefer it because they can grow fiefdoms and increase their power with minimal interference from pesky politicians. Senior bureaucrats always prefer to operate in darkness, exert extreme control over messaging, and they are allergic to public exposure. It is the nature of bureaucracy to perpetuate itself and grow its empire. This is the unstated rule of the Bureaucracy Party.
The City of SeaTac in Washington State is no exception to this rule. The recently defeated city council consisted mostly of fossilized politicians (including incumbent Democrat State Representative Mia Gregerson who overwhelmingly lost her Mayor position with 60% of the voters rejecting her leadership). The former councilmembers were willing to squander resources, secretly raise taxes, and exclude the public from committee meetings whenever possible. That agenda is always music to the ears of bureaucrats who thrive in secrecy, escalating budgets, and operate with little oversight. The new council recognized this situation and their second order of business at their first council meeting was to fire the incumbent city manager. That is usually a good start, but the problems in the City of SeaTac run deeper than this.
The staff infection festers in SeaTac
The SeaTac legal department is a problem. It is always difficult to accurately address incompetent or corrupt attorneys when they work for government. There are two reasons for this. The first is the fact that the Public Records Act exempts much of the communication between the legal staff and the elected officials. Citizens also can’t see the legal advice or lack of advice given to senior staff. I agree with many of my friends in the Washington Coalition for Open Government that far too much correspondence in this arena is restricted from public review and scrutiny. So, for now, bad advice is given in secret, and the citizens can only infer the incompetence from the results. The second reason is that much of this bad or misleading legal advice is provided to elected officials during “executive” sessions not open to the public. The elected officials are strongly discouraged from disclosing what happens in these meetings. This ensures that all legal advice stays shrouded in secrecy.
SeaTac City Attorney Mary Mirante Bartolo has led the city through avoidable and costly legal misadventures. These have created a large reservoir of bad will among those who have come into contact with city staff. Mary Mirante Bartolo has been working for the City of SeaTac since shortly after the City was founded in 1990. Here is a sample of the most egregious cases which occurred with her legal advice and under her legal stewardship:
SeaTac lost a major land use legal case – Jury awarded $9.6 million – City likely committed fraud
The recent K&S vs. SeaTac lawsuit resulted in a $9.6 million jury verdict against the City of SeaTac. As best I can tell, this is the 3rd highest land use jury verdict in Washington State history (the Maytown vs Thurston County case is #1 right now). Keep in mind, several jurors wanted to award a larger settlement, so SeaTac was fortunate to only lose this much. Remember,this is not a rogue judge decision, this was a jury verdict – very difficult to overturn on appeal.
“There is an actual and justiciable controversy as to whether the City’s liability is based on dishonest, fraudulent, or criminal acts…”
p.34 – lawsuit #No. 2:16-cv-00103-MJP -St Paul Insurance vs. City of SeaTac 1/28/16 – complete document linked below
The tame media has kept a lid on this story like they usually do, but there are several elements that raise massive red flags about the legal advice SeaTac attorneys were providing staff. First, the trial revealed clear questions of widespread, systematic, coordinated fraud by staff at the City of SeaTac. This is one reason why the insurance company is refusing to pay (see their fraud charges against the City of SeaTac linked in this court document) It challenges all my experience with bureaucracy to believe that these coordinated decisions were made without regular verification, supervision, and approval of their actions by staff with their legal department. Because of the apparent fraud committed by the employees of the City of SeaTac, this means the city (the taxpayers) will be on the hook for all of the $9.6 million . City Attorney Mary Mirante Bartolo supervised these actions and provided the legal advice to the city staff from the beginning.
(I have attached at the end of this article a large number of source documents to back up my statements about this case. The media may be too lazy or corrupt to care, but these documents are damning to the City of SeaTac; surely it justifies another article just on this spectacle alone)
Secondly, there have been a variety of questionable legal actions taken by or created by the behavior of the City of SeaTac. These appear to be bullying in nature and have cost the city millions of dollars. In most of these cases, mere prudence and respect for eminent domain law and other legal norms could have avoided these conflicts with local property owners, yet city attorney Mary Mirante Bartolo supported these questionable actions every time without apparent concern for legality. The various issues with the Cassan Park & Fly properties are case studies in incompetence and possible corruption for the City of SeaTac. However, there appear to be many smaller stories where the little guys who couldn’t afford attorneys just got crushed along the way.
Thirdly, the losing wrongful termination lawsuit over the City of SeaTac’s firing of Cindy Baker, the 1st CED Director (hired after the famous Prothman report (see attached) caused the city to restructure the entire planning department just to get rid of problem staff) raises numerous red flags as well. It isn’t just the $500,000 price tag of SeaTac’s settlement in this case (including legal fees), it is the gag order imposed on Ms. Baker (who was not contacted out of respect for the gag order). Most people interviewed for this article, who did not want to comment on the record, seemed to believe that Ms. Baker was doing a good job in a difficult situation. If this was an isolated incident at the city, then it would not be worth mentioning here, but later in this article, I will detail the other area of staff infection – the HR (Human Resources) department.
Finally, the recent ILA agreement with the Port of Seattle
Most observers of the rushed Interlocal agreement (ILA) recognize the incompetent deal for what it was at the time. Keep in mind, this agreement between the Port of Seattle and the City of SeaTac is arguably one of the most critical political legal arrangements this city ever negotiates since the Port of Seattle either operates or directly impacts almost the entire City of SeaTac. When a major airport occupies half the land of your city, the agreement with the operators of that airport is a serious event. Despite the massive impact upon the residents of the city, the Interlocal Agreement was rush-signed by the lame duck former council in a special meeting, as one of their last actions to trash the city finances in the equivalent of a political temper tantrum on their way out the door. They did so even after the incoming council asked them to delay for review by the newly elected council. The biggest problem with the ILA is that it appears to have given the Port of Seattle a screaming good deal and shorted the future budget of the City of SeaTac millions of dollars. That was not an action that put SeaTac resident’s best interests at heart. Instead legal council led by city attorney Mary Mirante Bartolo rushed the process over the protestations of the incoming council members. This is not how honest government operates.
Mary Mirante Bartolo frequently asks City Council members, “Do you trust me?” A word of caution to politicians: If someone asks you to trust them, you should be suspicious. Trustworthy people do not need to ask you to trust them. Trust will develop naturally as you keep your word. Abusers will always seek to gain the trust of those they plan to abuse. It is also unacceptable behavior for senior legal staff to threaten a libel lawsuit against local citizens who dare to question their actions. That is not a sign of honesty either, yet that is what Ms. Bartolo has done.
Which leads to another staff infection in the City of SeaTac.
This mainly involved the Human Resources Department, which appears troubled, to say the least. Rather than go into much detail here, I will quote from an April 10th email widely distributed by local SeaTac resident and commentator Earl Gipson on the SeaTac Blog “The Cactus Speaks” (worth reading for those interested in local details and background -direct copy including original grammar):
I absolutely serious about outsourcing HR. If it was me I would have done it ~ 6 years ago when HR Director Mike McCaffrey retired and especially when one third of the workforce is now working for the Kent RFA.
The department has been problematic since Mike’s departure (from what I can tell). For example:
-Code Enforcement Officer Terry Farden fired with dubious documentation.
-Code Enforcement Officer Barbara (forgot last name) goes to Burien after a decade plus with SeaTac.
-Dubious investigation of Cindy Baker by HR Director Ayn Hoang. Cinder Baker terminated and awarded $400K
-Ayn Hoang gets $17K annual raise and then mysteriously “mutually separated”
-City Engineer Susan Sanderson goes on medical leave and does not return. Rumors of “hostile workplace” and possible litigation.
-3 staff members assigned to HR Should be 2 at best.
-Hiring of code enforcement “coordinators” versus officers at $3K more a year and relocating one of them from North Las Vegas
-One “coordinator” is hired then quits abruptly. Can’t remember the name. Was here very briefly.
-Now we have HR Manager Vanessa Audette objecting to hiring Interim CM Donny Payne then filing a complaint against him (he resigns).
Do you see a pattern here? I do and if I was called in by a client with this history it would be my advice to outsource the entire department. The turmoil and costs of the department would not have been worth it. If this was a company of 25 or less I would say its a personnel problem and take action against the individual/s. This problem looks systemic, persists, and HR issues consistently handled poorly.
This is nothing personal and my advice would be the same for any client/business that are having these type of difficulties. The attached is some research on the good/bad aspects of doing this.
If you are a Councilmember, etc receiving this you can look at it as you like (City business or not). Not my problem. You are just on a Bcc list I developed years ago and is mainly fellow SeaTac business owners. The attached data is valid and can be found by anyone.
The issue discussed here appears to indicate a pattern of behavior by SeaTac HR staff to collude with legal staff to oppose all potential reformers and then target and destroy anyone hired who is not their pre-chosen puppet pick. The problems with this should be obvious. Earl Gipson’s suggestion to outsource the HR department is a different policy question, and while I suspect I agree with him in this case, regardless of whether the HR department at SeaTac should be outsourced or not, it certainly needs some major housekeeping. These are not the indications of a healthy government staff.
The new council has their work cut out for them. The bitterness and nastiness of the lately deposed council created many difficulties for the new council, but that is history now. It is worth remembering, but it is not worth a lot of energy spent whining about it. This is what people like Mia Gregerson do when they throw a tantrum in office. The city council now in office have to fix the problems, and it appears that staff is going to make any reform a serious challenge.
Council members are going to have to recognize that staff in SeaTac (just like in many jurisdictions) are hyper-political. This is different than politically “partisan” – a political party affiliation is not necessary for someone to be political. Professional bureaucrats are experienced at sowing dissent and misinformation among the elected officials who they “serve.” Elected officials are viewed as temporary road bumps on the bureaucrat’s way to achieving his or her own goals. The council votes are merely a formality to them. This is a real problem in modern local government, not just SeaTac.
There is a solution
Politically, it is probably very challenging for the elected officials to resolve their political differences and get on the same page solidly enough to stick together. It is not easy, but the four newly elected councilmembers and at least one of the legacy councilmembers should be able to achieve this, even over any obstruction of the remaining two councilmembers. However, despite some bad feelings and possible disagreements, the remaining five need to recognize that they must reform the bureaucracy or fail the citizens of their city. Here are some obvious places to start:
- Replace legal council. Bad advice is clearly being given to this council and staff. At best, it is incompetent, and judging from the recent jury verdict, it may very well be corrupt and fraudulent. If the historic legal correspondence and advice was open to public scrutiny, it is possible there would be enough evidence to justify complaints to the Washington State Bar Association (corrected from American Bar Association) and possibly additional ethical complaints.
- Address the HR problem. Earl is right, there is something wrong here as well. Outsourcing may make sense in this case. It almost certainly can’t be worse than the current track record.
- The new City Manager needs to have the skin of a rhino, the heart of a lion, and an iron back to deflect the knives– it will need to be a serious reformer who is willing to sign onto solving the obvious dysfunction that legal staff and HR are leaving behind. This is truly a thankless task, and the recent history indicates that the typical go-along-with-the-flow city manager will not work. The current HR Department and legal staff may collude to take down and trash the career of anyone not pre-corrupted to their schemes, whatever they may be.
- Remind themselves every day – they are here to serve the people who elected them. Not the Democratic Party. Not the Republican Party. Not the senior bureaucrats. Not their personal squabbles (which staff is striving to inflame). The people who elected them.
Nobody said it was going to be easy or simple… but divided a council will fall (and fail), united they can at least make progress towards curing this staff infection…
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.” It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people. It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government. It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.” Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed…
Source and Reference Documents for this Article:
Insurance Company – rejects payment for fraud among other reasons
Jury Verdict – K&S Verdict Form (note Misrepresentation Claim 1.3 is another term for “Fraud”)
Trial Exhibit 111 – 176th Redevelopment Plan (Power Point Presentation)
City’s Press Release – Jan 2010 (original)
Revised Final Press Release (City Press Release rewritten by K&S to represent their view of the situation)