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Langley embroiled in dispute over mayor’s pay

A dispute over Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson’s paychecks has sparked turmoil inside city hall and prompted the city’s chief financial officer to seek an outside investigation on alleged “improper actions” by the mayor.

The dispute centers on Samuelson’s work away from city hall, and allegations by City Treasurer Debbie Mahler that the mayor collected full-time pay from the city while he was on vacation in California earlier this year.

The mayor has claimed to work 40 hours each week on city business even while he has been out of town. Samuelson is also seeking to have vacation time he took in 2009 be treated as regular work days by the city, Mahler has claimed in public documents obtained this week by the Record.

Samuelson vigorously denied the allegations Friday.

He said he does not take vacations in the traditional sense. While away, Samuelson said he continues to handle the affairs of the city via his cellphone, laptop and BlackBerry.

“I have taken on the responsibility of managing the administration of the city. I’ve accepted the responsibility that it’s a 24/7 job,” he said. “When I am out of town, I am still conducting the business of the city. I don’t see that as vacation time.”

He disputed Mahler’s allegations that he has tried to get paid for anything beyond the salary for the job that was set by the council.

“I’m not an employee of the city. I’m clearly an elected official,” he said.

“As an elected official, I’m exempt from the wages and hour laws that exist,” Samuelson added. “I don’t believe I get vacation pay.”

“I have not put in for any vacation pay,” he said.

Mahler, who is also Langley’s city clerk, asked Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks for an investigation into the mayor’s actions in an April 22 letter.

In her letter, Mahler said the controversy over Samuelson’s pay began late last year, when he took off twice the amount of time for vacation than he was due during four out-of-state trips to visit family. Mahler said she was concerned about authorizing paychecks for the mayor for vacation time that wasn’t earned, and then contacted the state auditor’s office, where she was told it was an improper “gift of public funds.”

When Mahler later told Samuelson during a Dec. 11 meeting that there was a problem with his pay, he appeared “quite angry,” she said in her letter, and claimed he was working on city business even while on vacation, and therefore should receive his regular pay.

“The mayor stated that he works seven days a week, not necessarily eight hours every day, but that he works seven days a week and if he takes a trip, he still conducts business on his cell phone and e-mail, so therefore should not have vacation time deducted.”

“I had already been informed by the auditor’s office that this was improper, and would be a finding on [an] audit,” Mahler continued. “I was very worried that this will become public information and embarrassing for the mayor, and I was concerned about my own liability as chief financial officer of the city if this were to go on without being properly resolved.”

Mahler said she wrote a confidential memo to the city attorney about the matter, who later shared the memo with the mayor. She said the city attorney helped create an ordinance that said many of Samuelson’s working hours would be outside city hall, but that the mayor would provide time sheets to the treasurer that tracked his hours.

“Nothing in the ordinance was retroactive, but Mayor Samuelson is now working on time sheets for all of 2009 and wants his vacation hours reversed when he is finished,” Mahler wrote.

Mahler then again asked the county prosecutor to investigate.

“He has already taken two additional 10-day trips this year to California to visit family and he was paid regular time for those trips because that is what he told me to do,” Mahler recalled. “He insists that he is working while out of state and now fills out time sheets showing eight hours a day, five days a week, even when he is out of town. I am very uncomfortable with this situation and since Mayor Samuelson is my supervisor and there is no higher supervisors, I felt I must bring this to your attention for investigation.”

Banks refused to look into the matter, saying his office lacked the authority and resources for such an investigation. He also said he didn’t see any sign of corruption or crime that had been committed.

“First, you should know that my office does not typically conduct investigations into criminal behavior or public corruption. Law enforcement agencies must perform those investigations and then refer the matters to my office for prosecution,” Banks told Mahler in an April 26 letter.

“However, even if I had the resources and the authority to perform such an investigation, I do not see sufficient evidence of corruption or criminal acts to trigger an investigation in this instance,” Banks continued. “The mayor of a city is the elected head of the city’s executive branch of government. I have serious doubts that a city council may lawfully proscribe the amount of work days a mayor must complete. Such a regulation would violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.”

Banks also said the city council can’t regulate the mayor’s work hours.

“A mayor, like all Washington elected officials, must take an oath of office to faithfully execute his or her duties. Whether the mayor can accomplish those tasks in 10 hours per week or 70 hours per week is not part of the oath,” Banks wrote. “I don’t believe it is an area the city council can regulate. By the same token, I question the ability of a city council to limit the number of ‘vacation days’ an elected official may take, since it is tantamount to setting a minimum number of hours. Ultimately, it is for the voters to decide whether they believe an elected official is adequately carrying out his or her duties.”

The Langley City Council, however, has adopted at least three ordinances since 2008 that give the council the power to set the mayor’s working hours.

The first ordinance was prompted after the city’s move to a full-time mayor. The city council set the pay for the mayor’s job at $21,000 in 2007, during Neil Colburn’s final year as mayor when the position was still part-time.

Samuelson was elected mayor in November 2007, and the council gave him a $10,000 raise in late 2008, retroactive to September 2008, that pushed his pay to $31,000. That ordinance also said the council could set Samuelson’s hours, duties, salaries and benefits.

The council also approved a pay raise for 2009, which more than doubled the mayor’s salary over the 2007 level. It also said the mayor would be deemed an employee of the city, with a salary and benefits that matched department heads.

That ordinance set Samuelson’s annual salary at $51,513 for a 40-hour work week, but also noted the salary adjustment was only for Samuelson, and noted the mayor who would take office after Samuelson’s term concludes at the end of 2011 would be paid the previous salary of $21,000.

Mahler declined to speak about the controversy late this week, and said she wanted to talk to her attorney first before commenting.

Both sides, though, agreed that the most recent ordinance adopted by the city in February was intended to resolve the dispute.

Adopted unanimously without debate, that ordinance gave the mayor greater leeway on his working hours but required him to create a paper trail. Unlike the previous one, it did not dictate regular office hours for the mayor.

“As the city’s elected official who is responsible for always being on call to supervise the affairs of the city and to respond to the needs of its citizens, it is understood that many of the mayor’s work hours will be performed outside of city hall and normal working hours,” the ordinance reads. “The mayor shall maintain a written record of all of his work hours and shall provide a copy thereof to the city clerk-treasurer on a semi-monthly basis.”

Usually, the council takes two votes at separate meetings to approve an ordinance. The council, though, waived the first reading of the ordinance of Feb. 16 and approved it.

Councilman Robert Gilman declined to address any questions regarding the ordinance on Thursday and why it was needed. He also would not talk about the dispute over the mayor’s vacation pay.

“I think I’m going to have to defer,” Gilman said.

Samuelson disputed several of Mahler’s claims. He said he did not get angry when he was originally confronted by Mahler on the issue last December, and never told her to cease calls to the state auditor’s office on the matter.

He also said he was never told that he needed to keep time sheets of his hours. The treasurer should have told him they were necessary, he said.

“The concern I have with Debbie is that when she brought this forward, it was 11 months after she had concerns about it,” Samuelson said, adding that the treasurer should not have issued his paychecks if she thought documentation on his hours was lacking.

Samuelson also said he was surprised that Mahler had contacted the county prosecutor. He did not know of Mahler’s attempt to get an investigation started until he was called by Banks on Thursday afternoon, warning him that a public records request had been submitted by the Record and the two letters on the paycheck issue would be released.

If she still had concerns, Samuelson said, she should have sought advice internally first.

“I think this will change our relationship,” he said.

“If she didn’t feel comfortable speaking with me, then her next avenue was the council, and then the next avenue was the city attorney,” Samuelson added.

Samuelson said he was planning to talk to council members on Friday to alert them of the issue. He said the matter was a likely topic for the council workshop on Tuesday.

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