Politics & Government

How did Pierce County spend $3.3 million without telling the public?

A Tacoma City Council meeting agenda from April 24, 2018 (upper left) shows how the city informs the public about legal settlements. The parties and the dollar amounts are listed prior to the council’s vote. A Pierce County Council meeting agenda from Nov. 14, 2017, shows a different approach. No amounts or parties are listed. The claim refers to “settlement authority” without specifics. The county claim was settled on Nov. 17, 2017, for $680,000 -- a figure the public never saw.
A Tacoma City Council meeting agenda from April 24, 2018 (upper left) shows how the city informs the public about legal settlements. The parties and the dollar amounts are listed prior to the council’s vote. A Pierce County Council meeting agenda from Nov. 14, 2017, shows a different approach. No amounts or parties are listed. The claim refers to “settlement authority” without specifics. The county claim was settled on Nov. 17, 2017, for $680,000 -- a figure the public never saw. jbessex@gateline.com

On Nov. 14, 2017, Pierce County Council members gathered for their usual Tuesday meeting, and unanimously approved an item buried at the bottom of that week’s consent agenda.

There was no way for the public to know, but the council effectively agreed to spend $680,000 of public money without revealing the amount or the purpose.

The money capped off a settlement agreement signed three days after the council’s vote. It went to Lynelle Anderson, a veteran sheriff’s deputy who filed a claim for damages in mid-2017 that alleged a long-term pattern of gender discrimination and harassment. She declined to comment for this story.

Council members admitted this week they didn’t know how much the county spent to settle the Anderson claim. They also don’t know how much was spent to settle claims filed by other parties, and they haven’t known since December 2016.

The answer: $3.3 million for 187 claims. The News Tribune obtained the information Friday with a public disclosure request.

Records associated with the $680,000 settlement indicate that Anderson, a 19-year veteran who handles the department’s cold cases, among other duties, was denied training opportunities, given conflicting assignments and orders by different commanders and systematically marginalized because of her gender.

Two of those commanders, Capt. Scott Mielcarick and Lt. Rusty Wilder, faced an administrative investigation tied to their treatment of Anderson. Mielcarick has been placed on a paid administrative assignment, and Wilder has been assigned to a different area of the sheriff’s department, according to sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.

Earlier in her career, Anderson endured demeaning comments, such as “do you still have your uterus?” when she returned to work following a health problem, according to records. Another commander told her she was lucky to have a job with the department, or she’d likely be on welfare.

The statements, not attributed to Mielcarick or Wilder, appear in an interview of Anderson conducted during the course of an internal investigation. Another incident described in records indicates that she faced unwelcome advances from a colleague who tried to pursue a romantic relationship with her.

The News Tribune first learned of the Anderson settlement from sources unaffiliated with county government, and requested the associated records via public disclosure.

Comparing the year-old records to records of council action reveals an empty space: Members didn’t take a public vote to approve the Anderson payout. Their Nov. 14 vote simply granted “settlement authority” to legal negotiators.

No numbers were disclosed. No names were mentioned. The claim was referenced by a number.

In essence, the council’s vote gave legal negotiators an undisclosed range of amounts to settle the claim, without disclosing numbers or any other details to the public. The range was determined in an executive session attended by council members, but no public vote tied to the payout ever followed.

The approach represents standard procedure for the county, but it leaves the public in the dark about the scale of associated spending.

“How can they spend nearly $700,000 of public money without taking a vote?” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and a member of the Kirkland City Council. “You can’t spend money that hasn’t been budgeted. I wonder what they consider to be the budget authority for that.”

The settlements involving Anderson and others weren’t disclosed to the public, partly because the council’s standard procedure didn’t require direct votes to spend the money, and partly because the only window that would allow the public to see any record of the spending has been closed for two years.

That’s the last time that council members received a quarterly report from the county’s risk management division that summed up recent settlements of claims and lawsuits.

Council Chairman Doug Richardson told The News Tribune in a recent interview that he didn’t realize those quarterly reports weren’t taking place.

“Risk management is supposed to provide reports on a quarterly basis, come up to the council and in a public meeting talk about outstanding claims,” he said. “I’m admitting to you that it hasn’t been happening. And I will now take steps to follow up to make sure that that’s occurring.”

Claims for damages, associated lawsuits and payouts are a fact of life for local governments. Different agencies approach them with different levels of public disclosure. Typically, agencies allow settlements to be handled without a separate public vote, if the payout falls below a certain threshold.

In Pierce County, that threshold is $250,000, outlined in the county code, which states that, “All proposed settlements in excess of $250,000 shall be submitted by the Executive to the County Council for approval.”

Records of the 187 claims settled by the county since December 2016 show that most cost less than $10,000. However, three claims, including the Anderson settlement, exceeded the $250,000 threshold. Collectively, they cost taxpayers about $1.6 million. The council didn’t take direct votes on any of them. The public had no notice, other than votes granting unspecified “settlement authority,” with no dollar figures attached.

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Sean Robinson provides coverage and insights into Tacoma and Pierce County you can't find anywhere else. Support the work we do with a digital subscription to The News Tribune.

The City of Tacoma sees its share of settlements, and provides more public information about them than the county.

For example, City Council members voted on payouts for a pair of settlements on April 24. The items appeared on the meeting agenda beforehand. The parties were named, and the precise payments — $35,000 and $174,000 — were included. Council members voted on both items.

The county’s process is more opaque. Richardson said he couldn’t recall voting publicly on a specific settlement amount during his six-year tenure.

Councilman Derek Young served on the Gig Harbor City Council before his election to the County Council. He recalled the city handling settlements in a manner similar to Tacoma.

“At some point there would finally be an approval,” he said. “Either the ratification or direction to authorize the mayor to execute it on behalf of the city.”

When Young first joined the County Council in 2014, he was taken aback by the county’s approach to settlements.

“I remember wondering why we didn’t have some requirement to adopt the final conclusion,” he said, adding that he would support a change in county procedure that would allow a public vote on large settlements.

“I absolutely would,” he said. “I think it’s probably more appropriate to do it at the time rather than having a report.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.


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