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Legal defense fund set up for Langley city treasurer

A group of South Whidbey residents has set up a legal defense fund to assist Langley Treasurer Debbie Mahler if she is fired amid the ongoing controversy over Mayor Paul Samuelson’s pay.

The group, called South Whidbey Citizens for Fair Play, said Mahler is at risk of losing her job because she raised questions about the mayor’s pay.

“It appears to the South Whidbey Citizens for Fair Play that Ms. Mahler is being threatened with the loss of her job and other very unpleasant work circumstances,” said Jamie McNett, a 25-year South End resident and unofficial spokesman for the group.

“My personal motivation for being involved in trying to generate funds for Ms. Mahler’s protection is that I think she is being treated extremely unfairly and quite possibly illegally,” he said. “I don’t want to see South Whidbey characterized by that kind of behavior.”

The fundraising effort was launched this week as the city council continues to examine the pay package it approved for the first-term mayor in 2008 and amended earlier this year.

Hot topic in town

The topic of the mayor’s pay has earned front-page headlines since early July, when months of internal turmoil in Langley City Hall became public after city officials learned that Mahler had sent a letter to Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, asking him to investigate possible “improper actions” by Samuelson.

Worried that the mayor was using more vacation time — and getting paid for it — than he was allowed under the benefits package approved by the council, Mahler asked Banks in late April to look into the mayor’s pay. She told Banks she had already contacted the state auditor’s office, and said she was told that paying an employee for vacation time that had not yet been accrued was a “gift of public funds.”

Banks declined to step in, telling Mahler that he lacked the resources to do an investigation and that he did not see enough evidence of corruption or criminal wrongdoing that would prompt such a probe.

Samuelson found out about Mahler’s request for an investigation after the Record asked for the letters sent between Banks and Mahler, and the prosecutor notified the mayor of the newspaper’s public-records request.

Banks said Samuelson would have found out earlier if the prosecutor had followed his normal approach on correspondence.

“If I write about somebody, normally I’ll copy them on the letter so they know I am talking about them,” Banks said.

He didn’t in the Langley case, he said, because Mahler was worried about the mayor’s reaction if he found out.

“She said, ‘Please don’t do that; the last time I got into trouble with Paul.’”

“She was clearly concerned, but I thought her concerns were a little misplaced,” Banks added.

Banks said he thought the treasurer didn’t understand that the council could not regulate the mayor’s hours at work, and couldn’t limit the amount of time the mayor took for vacation. To do so, he said, would violate the separation of powers doctrine between the executive and legislative branches of government — in this case, the mayor on one side and the council on the other. If the council could set the mayor’s work hours, council members would be able to “micromanage” the work of the mayor, he said.

“They could, really, basically overwhelm the executive, and then there would not be checks and balances. They would hold all the cards,” Banks said.

Banks said he thought Mahler contacted him because they have known each other for years.

But not notifying the mayor earlier, Banks said, was “a dumb mistake.”

“When I realized it was going to be published, I kind of felt bad I had written this some months ago and Paul didn’t know anything about it,” he said.

That said, the prosecutor added that his refusal to investigate may have been different if he suspected criminal wrongdoing.

“My first take was a big-picture look,” Banks said. “It doesn’t appear to me in any way to be criminal; it’s an internal issue with the city.”

Controversy continues

Mahler has said she first tried to raise her concerns with the mayor over his vacation pay in December 2009 after he returned from a family visit to California, but claimed he had been working on city business during the trip.

She said the mayor became angry when asked about his vacation time — something he later denied — and Mahler recounted that the mayor said “the staff has no business” determining if he were on vacation.

With the issue unresolved, Mahler said she sent a confidential memo to the city attorney asking him to look into the issue.

The memo to the attorney sparked a same-day meeting between the mayor and other members of his administration with the city’s lawyers, and was followed by days and weeks of attorney work devoted to “personnel issues” at city hall.

While some attorney work was spent on revising the pay ordinance that led to the pay dispute, one former city worker said employees’ concerns over the vacation pay issue exacerbated the deteriorating relationship between Mahler and the mayor, which started to crumble months earlier when the treasurer told the council about problems with the city budget.

Mary Jo McArdle, the city’s former public records coordinator, said earlier that Samuelson wanted Mahler fired after that incident with the council. The mayor announced he would be making personnel cuts in the finance department under the guise of a “restructuring” effort he had announced early in his term.

The city’s attorneys racked up thousands of dollars in legal fees in the months following the city council’s adoption of a new ordinance on the mayor’s pay in February, one that required the mayor to fill out written time sheets of his work hours.

Attorney bills provided under a public records request show the city’s legal team in early April contacted Prothman, a professional headhunting company based in Bellevue that finds permanent and interim employees for local governments.

The invoices also show the city’s lawyers repeatedly called a manager in the risk-management section of the agency that handles the city’s insurance, and also contacted people who had previously served as interim financial officers for cities.

Janice Howard is a claims manager in the Risk Management Service Agency at the Association of Washington Cities, which provides insurance coverage for Langley as part of a pool of cities.

The city’s lawyers talked repeatedly with Howard, and sent documents to the AWC for review.

Howard assigns lawyers and manages cases involving damage claims and lawsuits that cities are facing. She declined to talk about her contacts with Langley representatives.

“Any conversation with the city and the attorney is confidential and protected,” Howard said. “I can’t particularly give you any information on what those conversations were about. I can’t.”

Invoices also show the mayor personally made more than two dozen calls to the city’s lawyers to talk about personnel issues in the months following the December meeting with Mahler over his vacation pay.

Samuelson declined to answer questions about the amount of money spent on “personnel” issues or the work of the city’s attorneys on that topic.

“I’m not able to talk about personnel issues, so I can’t talk about that,” Samuelson said.

“I want to be really clear. Even if I could, and I can’t by law, even if I could, I ethically would not talk about personnel issues publicly,” he said.

Samuelson also would not answer questions about the attorney’s contacts with a headhunter agency or any work done to find an interim treasurer.

“Same answer,” he said.

“Personnel issues are personnel issues, and I’m not going to talk about them,” Samuelson said.

Samuelson said he never noticed that vacation time was accruing on his paychecks.

“I just didn’t pay attention to that,” he said. “I take my paycheck home and give it to my wife.”

Council looks at pay

The Langley City Council is expected to take up a new salary ordinance for the mayor this month.

In August, the council sent a proposed ordinance that covered the mayor’s pay and benefits back for retooling. At the last council meeting where the topic came up, some residents urged the city to abandon the idea of making the pay ordinance a special deal for Samuelson.

When the city doubled the mayor’s pay in November 2008 so he could be compensated as a full-time mayor, it also said the special pay provision would expire at the end of Samuelson’s term. Samuelson currently makes $53,532 per year, plus benefits.

Councilman Robert Gilman said he didn’t think the earlier ordinances that led to the dispute over the mayor’s pay were problematic.

“I actually think we did fine with [ordinances] 911 and 912,” he said, adding that, in hindsight, the council should have avoided the phrase in Ordinance 912 that “deemed” the mayor an employee and gave him the same benefits as city department heads.

The current arrangement means the next mayor and council will have “flexibility,” he said, to determine the mayor’s role. That’s important because the council cannot cut the pay for a mayor once that person takes office, Gilman said, because such a move would run afoul of the state constitution.

“We lock ourselves into either saying it will always be a full-time, full-pay mayor, where we can’t make any changes to that because the state constitution says we can’t lower it,” he said.

A party when all is over

McNett, a member of the South Whidbey Citizens for Fair Play, praised Mahler for raising the pay issue, and noted her nearly 18 years of service to the city.

Donors to the legal defense fund would be kept confidential, and organizers promised a strict accounting of donations, and said checks would be made payable to Mahler’s lawyer. Organizers of the fund also said if money remains after the issues involving Mahler have been settled, remaining funds would be used for a public celebration of Langley in Langley.

The address for the fund is PO Box 242, Langley WA, 98260.

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