Puyallup Herald

Political turmoil in Puyallup as council member calls for firing city manager

Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto was the subject of a resolution proposed by Puyallup Councilman Jim Kastama on May 1 to terminate Yamamoto's employment over litigation costs to the city.
Puyallup City Manager Kevin Yamamoto was the subject of a resolution proposed by Puyallup Councilman Jim Kastama on May 1 to terminate Yamamoto's employment over litigation costs to the city. Puyallup Herald file

A Puyallup City Council member has suggested firing city manager Kevin Yamamoto, saying he's responsible for various lawsuits and costs to the city.

Councilman Jim Kastama tried to introduce a resolution titled "Removing the City Manager of his Position" at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Kastama wrote in the resolution that Yamamoto “was responsible for the termination of the contract with Conway Construction that involved improvements on 39th Avenue Southwest ... despite the high potential for litigation.”

“We hold anyone accountable for the actions that happen in the city. I believe we need a change in management,” Kastama said.

The council tabled Kastama’s resolution but approved a motion to go into to executive session to discuss a city manager evaluation process.

“I do not support firing the city manager tonight,” Councilman Tom Swanson said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We have discussed in the past developing a process to fairly evaluate the city manager and his job performance. We had an agreement about a month ago on how to proceed with doing that.”

The council plans to have a baseline of agreed-upon criteria for the city manager position by July. In December, the council will assess whether Yamamoto’s performance has lived up to that criteria.

Yamamoto, who has been city manager since 2015 and served as city attorney before that, declined to comment on the resolution or evaluation.

He has supporters on the council, including councilwoman Julie Door.

"The reputation of a very good city manager was tarnished by a political maneuver,” Door said. “My hope is that council members will put aside personal grievances and agendas to and work together on behalf of the residents of Puyallup.”

Part of the upheaval stems from a road project that went awry.

Construction began in 2015 to widen a six-block stretch of 39th Avenue Southwest near the South Hill Mall and Costco. What was supposed to take eight months instead took nearly two years, creating frustration among drivers.

The city terminated the contract with Conway Construction in 2016, and the company filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination shortly after. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh in March awarded Conway Construction about $2.28 million in attorney fees, penalties and interest to resolve the lawsuit.

“The City of Puyallup has spent approximately $650,000 in expenses and attorneys’ fees to represent the city, which brings the total cost to the city of approximately $3 million,” Kastama said in his resolution.

Kastama said that the significant financial losses could have gone toward other important issues, such as decreasing Puyallup’s crime rates.

The resolution also referenced cases involving a public-records fight over the emails of former city councilman Steve Vermillion, where courts have ruled against the city.

Councilwoman Cynthia Jacobsen showed support for adding the resolution.

“I think the public deserves a straight-up decision on this. I think it deserves to be on the agenda,” Jacobsen said.

Mayor John Palmer called Kastama’s proposed resolution disruptive.

“I think it was unfortunate, proposing the removal of the city manager when there’s not the support to do that,” Palmer said. “It really does get in the way of a lot of important work we want to do.”

“In terms of the legal defense of the case it doesn't help,” he added. “Looking back, I think it’s irresponsible to make those statements while we’re in the middle of litigation. They’re not in the best financial interest of the city.”

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison