The $17,000 severance agreement offered to Langley’s former planning director was, at least in part, done to avoid possible litigation.
In the separation agreement, former Community Planning director Michael Davolio agreed to waive “all actual or potential legal claims against the City.” That protects city coffers from any legal costs and allows Langley to move on with finding a new Community Planning director without the looming threat of a lawsuit.
Though the city has remained mum about the details or circumstances that led to the separation, Mayor Fred McCarthy, speaking for the first time since the deal was released Friday, described the severance package as “very appropriate,” saying it was offered as a gesture of gratitude from the city to Davolio.
Though the former planner was placed on paid, then non-paid leave, before eventually resigning, McCarthy denied implications that Davolio was forced out or offered cash to simply go away.
“I wouldn’t say he was paid to leave,” McCarthy said.
“We were thanking him for the time and energy he gave here,” he added.
The city’s thanks, and Davolio’s promise not to sue, comes at the tune of $11,909 for eight weeks of salary, $3,365 for accrued sick, vacation and personal leave, and $2,911 for continued health coverage. The mayor said it was standard practice to pay for accrued leave time, as was the practice of severance packages in general.
“Severance packages like that are a normal part of bringing an employment relationship to closure before the expected time,” McCarthy said.
Davolio was not a contracted employee, so his tenure as the planning director was never specified in writing. He, like most of the regular employees at Langley City Hall, is an at-will worker who could leave or have his employment terminated without reason, according to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. In other words, the city was in no way obligated to provide Davolio with a severance package.
Also, despite the mayor’s claim, the offer is a break from recent practice with departing department heads who also weren’t pressured to leave. The past three former city department supervisors who left were not offered separation or severance agreements when they resigned. A former planning director and a public works director left to take jobs elsewhere and did not receive severance deals, as did a previous public works director who resigned after a few months on the job. A fourth supervisor, a police chief, retired and he wasn’t provided a severance package either.
McCarthy, who did not seek re-election in November, will leave the office at the end of the month. All four of the above mentioned departments heads left under his tenure. Davolio makes the fifth.
The mayor said the turnover at city hall is the byproduct of being a small city. Talented people move on to different, better positions, he said.
With Davolio, however, that was not necessarily the case. Davolio submitted his official resignation Dec. 2, which was accepted Dec. 7 by the city council and mayor. The mayor said he made the decision to discuss a parting of ways between the planner and Langley because “It was the right thing to do.” McCarthy also said he was not influenced by others.
“This was strictly as a relationship between me as the supervisor and him as the planner,” McCarthy said.
The separation/severance agreement also required McCarthy to write Davolio a written letter of recommendation.
Verbal requests to see Davolio’s personnel file were denied. McCarthy said, based on legal counsel, those documents were protected. He did not provide an RCW that exempts the records as required by the Open Public Records Act.
Langley Director of Finance/Clerk Debbie Mahler, who handles the city’s public records requests, responded to a written request for disciplinary notes or actions that no disciplinary actions were made or taken with regard to Davolio, so none could be produced.
Nancy Krier, the Assistant Attorney General for Open Government, did not comment on the situation in Langley. She instead cited sections of the Washington Attorney General’s Open Government Resource Manual about employee evaluations and personnel complaints and investigations. An evaluation of a public employee’s performance “is presumed to be highly offensive and of no legitimate concern to the public,” according to the manual. In that same guidebook, substantiated misconduct or disciplinary action taken is to be disclosed, “because they are of legitimate interest to the public, even if embarrassing to the employee.”
Washington is an at-will employment state. That means that employers and employees enter into a working relationship at will, and it can be dissolved at any time by either party without stating a reason, so long as it is not discriminatory.
Severance deals are not required by law, unless part of a signed contract. Davolio had no such contract. Several legal advice websites, however, refer to such severance deals as being a means of making employees leave as “quickly and quietly as possible,” as written on labor-employment-law.lawyers.com.
“We wanted to treat him fairly,” McCarthy said of the severance deal.
Prior to his resignation early this month, Davolio was placed on paid administrative leave in late October, then non-paid leave in November.
The city’s planning department is now led by interim director Jack Lynch. As a former planner for the city for decades, he helped out prior to Davolio’s hire and is on contract through February. Langley has begun posting the position to find new candidates, and McCarthy said the city hopes to have a new planning director selected by February.
“With Mr. Davolio’s resignation for personal and professional reasons, the city will be looking for a good fit in a planner and will be going through a process that will result in a good fit for the city,” McCarthy said.