Contentiousness marks Milton mayoral race

Staff writerOctober 24, 2013 

A divisive mayoral race in Milton has accusations flying from both sides ahead of the Nov. 5 general election.

Newcomer Philip “Marty” Lelli Jr. says incumbent Mayor Debra Perry is a bully who overspends. Perry contends Lelli relies on intimidating city officials to get his way as opposed to debating the real issues.

Both Lelli and Perry’s supporters say they fear Milton could turn into another Pacific, whose mayor, before he was recalled, prompted weeks of turmoil after he fired city staff members and at one point was arrested for trying to push his way into a locked city office.

Lelli, a Tacoma longshoreman, has questioned how Perry used her city-issued credit card. He said he is mostly concerned with how the mayor is spending city funds, citing hotel costs in places such as Olympia for conferences and excessive meal purchases — which were all approved by the city’s finance department.

“I have no proof (she misused the card),” he said, “because if I did, I would certainly do something about it.”

The News Tribune reviewed Perry’s expense records from April 2011 through April 2013. They show minor deviations from the city’s policy for using credit cards, but no apparent misspending. Perry’s purchases were documented with itemized receipts, though many were missing summaries describing their uses – a requirement under city policy.

City finance director Lisa Tylor acknowledged documentation for some of Perry’s purchases was lacking, but said the city’s clean audit and several checks and balances on purchases ensure cards are used appropriately.

“We do our best to remind our officials what procedures are,” Tylor said.

Perry told The News Tribune she always writes on the front or back of receipts, and welcomes a review of her spending.

“I have done nothing wrong,” she said.

Lelli also says the mayor is a “bully” who tries to control city staff members and elected officials, although he offered no specifics.

He said that, if elected, he would work to change the city’s form of government from a strong-mayor to city-manager system to take power away from the mayor. The city would run better that way, he said, and the change would eliminate the “fear-based” system he believes exists.

City Councilwoman Lois Zaroudny said Lelli’s bullying claim about Perry is baseless.

“I’ve never seen any kind of behavior like that with Debra,” she said. “What he’s saying simply is not true.”

Some of those who interacted with Lelli say his short temper is the problem. Perry supporters and some City Council members say his intimidating behavior and lack of city government experience make him the wrong candidate to lead the city.

Bob Whalen, a City Council member for a decade, said Lelli, in response to a disagreement, told him at a council meeting, “Let’s take this outside.” Whalen also said Lelli has vowed to fire City Administrator Subir Mukerjee – over claims the city is running inefficiently – should he defeat Perry.

Lelli denies targeting Mukerjee, saying it would be “crazy to fire a guy and pay him the rest of that contract.”

Zaroudny said she has seen Lelli shout from the audience during the few council meetings he has attended.

Lelli responded that if he is guilty of anything, it is being passionate.

“I get passionate about certain subjects, and so I get loud,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been working on.”

He said he has never threatened anyone, though he confronts people face to face when problems arise.

“I do hit things straight on,” he said.

Court documents and police reports obtained by The News Tribune show Lelli was convicted twice for domestic violence, in 2002 and 2007. He also was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault in an incident with his girlfriend in 2005; both charges eventually were dismissed.

The incidents occurred in Federal Way, Kent and SeaTac, respectively.

During that time, Lelli was in and out of jail for failing to show up for court hearings on those and other charges. Eventually, he was found guilty for violating a no-contact order and driving with a suspended license on several occasions.

Most recently, an anti-harassment order against Lelli was filed by Richard Cosner, chairman of the Milton events committee on which Lelli also serves. Cosner alleged Lelli and his family and friends sent emails and left voice mail messages harassing Cosner and his family.

The case was closed after Cosner and Lelli came to a mutual agreement and Cosner withdrew the complaint. Cosner said he couldn’t comment on the complaint because of the settlement but said he doesn’t support Lelli’s campaign.

“He’s not the person I would want in a position of authority,” he said.

Susan Johnson, another events committee member, said the complaint stemmed from a confrontation in August during the annual Milton Days car show.

Lelli, who sponsors the event each year, was trying to promote his mayoral campaign with a banner, Johnson said. Cosner told Lelli the events committee had decided the event wasn’t political, and hanging campaign signs was not allowed.

Johnson said Lelli was upset at the decision and publicly berated Cosner, yelling profanity and invading his space.

She said she has seen altercations between Lelli and other city officials. He has cursed at events committee members, put his hands on the city administrator and even invaded her space, she said.

“He is not a calm person when he doesn’t get his way,” she said of Lelli.

Concerning his run-ins with the law, Lelli said he has learned a lot from anger-management courses and embracing self-help practices.

“Anger is a learned behavior, and I believe you can unlearn it,” he said.

Perry said it has been one of the nastiest campaigns she has ever seen.

“This has been very difficult, to have somebody run around the city and say horrible rumors about me and my family,” she said. “Whatever (Lelli and his supporters) can do to intimidate, that’s their way.”

Zaroudny said she is worried a situation is brewing similar to neighboring Pacific and its problems with former Mayor Cy Sun. Johnson shares similar fears, and said the city is running fine as is under Perry.

“If it’s not broken, why change it?” Johnson asked. “The current group has worked well together. This is an important election for Milton.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

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