Langley cleaning contract gets messy

A Langley woman has consulted an attorney after she lost her major source of income Jan. 1 after working for the city since June of 2000.

When a new mayor took office in January, the city of Langley didn’t renew Irene Murphy’s contracts to clean the public restrooms, city hall and library. Instead, the contracts went to someone who’s a former employee of mayor Neil Colburn and the son of the city clerk/treasurer, Debbie Mahler.

In January, Irene Murphy — a single mother with a 9-year-old son — began researching whether the termination of her contracts was legal. She and her attorney are attempting to determine if the contracts involved a conflict of interest among Colburn, Mahler and the winning bidder, Corey Williams.

“I just wanted to be able to compete for them fairly, and I don’t feel I got that choice,” Murphy said.

She said the $24,000 she earned in her 2003 contracts with the city was about 60 percent of her annual income. The rest came from cleaning contracts with local businesses, including the Freeland Library.

Murphy’s worries about finances turned to anger after she learned the two contracts had been awarded to Williams, Mahler’s son and a former employee of Colburn at Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe.

In an interview this week, Murphy admitted her efforts to comply with her contracts could have cost her the jobs. She did not have the required business insurance, but Langley’s former attorney and city administrator, Lynn Hicks, said the city was willing to help her pay for it. In July Murphy began the search for insurance, and provided the city with insurance quotes she had obtained.

In a letter to Murphy in August, Hicks said the city of Langley realizes liability insurance is expensive, but the next contract could be increased to cover the cost of one year’s insurance.

“Because we are very satisfied with your work and would like you to continue providing janitorial services for the city, we are willing to raise your contract fee next year in the amount it costs you to obtain liability insurance,” the letter said.

Murphy’s sparkling reputation around the city was nothing new.

Less than five months before her contracts were terminated, Murphy was commended from former Mayor Lloyd Furman for her immaculate work seven days a week, 365 days a year. Furman presented a letter to Murphy at a Langley City Council meeting Aug. 1, and praised her on behalf of the city for her exceptional work.

“The restrooms are always fastidiously clean and sanitary, and we receive many positive comments from visitors about them,” Furman read aloud from his letter.

Further in the letter he thanked her for her hard work during the Choochokam weekend the month before.

“Once again, despite use by thousands of people all day long, you were able to keep the restrooms immaculate. We heard many compliments about the condition of the restrooms.”

According to Murphy, her new business insurance began in October, and as directed, she requested an increase in pay to offset the costs of the insurance. The change in salary would require a new contract, Murphy was told, and the letter requesting the additional funds would be considered as a bid for the restroom contract.

“Anyone who saw that letter would’ve known the bid,” she said.

Murphy said she was later asked — and she agreed — to extend her contract expiring Nov. 1, 2003, to Dec. 31, 2003, to provide ample opportunity for others to submit bids.

Murphy inquired about the outcome of the public restroom bid in an e-mail to Mahler on Dec. 9. She said Mahler replied to the e-mail on Dec. 10 and wrote a decision had not been made. In the e-mail, Mahler said Furman had put off the decision so Colburn could make it once he took office.

“The city is not going to make a decision on the bid process until the first of the year, when the new mayor takes over,” Mahler said in the e-mail.

Murphy’s shock came the next day, Dec. 11, when Mahler e-mailed her again and told her she had lost not only her restroom cleaning contract, but the library and City Hall contract as well.

“I’m sorry, but both your contracts will terminate at the end of December,” Mahler’s e-mail said.

What puzzles Murphy now is how she lost her library and city hall contract when she had not known it was up for bid. She said her contract states that it will renew automatically on the first day of January for each subsequent year unless terminated in writing by either party 30 days prior to renewal. Murphy said she neither gave nor received notice of such termination.

A call for bids was published as a legal notice in The South Whidbey Record on Nov. 15 and 19, 2003. By believing her contract was to roll over, Murphy said she was blindsided and had no way to know her job had been advertised for bids.

“Had I known that, I would’ve said, ‘Hey, they’re advertising my other job,’ ” Murphy said.

In a bid for the same contract, Williams asked for $50 less a month for both the library and city hall — or $25 each — than Murphy was contracted in 2003. Williams bid $195 a month for City Hall, and $855 a month for the library, $600 per year, less than Murphy was paid in 2003.

In the restroom contract — where Murphy had asked for a raise — Williams’ bid matched hers exactly: $1,200 a month. Murphy said she hopes to find out if it was just a coincidence the bids were identical, and if so why it was given to Williams.

“That guy got my raise,” Murphy said. “He got the raise I asked for.”

Clarke Harvey, an attorney in Clinton whose office also is cleaned by Murphy, is representing her. Now facing a $24,000 income loss, Murphy hopes her actions are not in vain.

“I can’t afford where I live anymore,” Murphy said.

Because the city is facing potential litigation, Colburn would not comment in depth on the issue this week. In an interview last week, he said he was concerned that Murphy had not talked to him before consulting an attorney.

“If we made a mistake then we need to know about it,” Colburn said last week. “If there’s a contract dispute, then you’ve got to let us know so we can make this right.”

Colburn said without looking at the bids he instructed Mahler to award to the contract to the lowest bidder. One other bidder had put in a bid to clean city hall, but was higher than both Murphy and Williams, according to Colburn.

“I just wanted the best contract for the city,” Colburn said.

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