Special Reports

Corpuz offers to retire - with severance

Tacoma City Manager Ray Corpuz has offered to step down as city manager on Aug. 31 in exchange for six months of severance pay and "adequate funding for my city pension" so he can retire with benefits equal to 30 years of service.

In a letter to City Councilman Doug Miller dated Monday, Corpuz said he wanted to "do everything possible to help return City Hall to normalcy" in the wake of the controversy following the shooting death of Crystal Brame.

Tacoma City Council members took no action on Corpuz's offer Tuesday. Instead, the council hired a law firm for $245,000 to represent the city in the $75 million wrongful death claim filed by Crystal Brame's family.

Council members also spent an hour behind closed doors, meeting with their new attorneys from the Tacoma firm of Burgess Fitzer.

When they emerged, council members backed off plans to end Corpuz's employment. Corpuz had previously said he intended to retire in September 2004 when his retirement benefits are fully vested and the Brame investigation is complete.

Two council members - Mike Lonergan and Bill Evans - wanted to take a vote on their plan to retire Corpuz with no severance pay. But all that stalled following the council's meeting with their new attorneys.

Council members got copies of Corpuz's letter Tuesday night during the City Council meeting, but the contents were never discussed during the public session.

In his letter to Miller, Corpuz offered to voluntarily terminate his employment as city manager on Aug. 31. He also offered to develop a transition plan, cooperate in the Brame investigation and be available to offer advice on the Brame case through Sept. 1, 2004.

In exchange, Corpuz requests an amount equal to six months' severance pay and benefits. He also seeks funding for his city pension so he would receive retirement benefits worth 30 years' service starting in September.

Corpuz has worked 29 years with the city, the last 13 years as city manager. He earns $181,925 a year.

Miller called Corpuz's letter "a tool for the council to have a better understanding as to the way he's thinking." He said Corpuz's offer showed considerable movement from the city manager but is not something the City Council is likely to approve.

"You can't fault somebody for making suggestions to continue" negotiations, Miller said.

Earlier Tuesday, Lonergan said he wanted his colleagues to vote that night on a resolution that would end Corpuz's employment July 1 with no severance pay, but Mayor Bill Baarsma talked him out of it.

"I would advise that we wait until next week to give the public notice that this will be on the agenda," the mayor said.

Lonergan agreed and promised to bring his plan back for a vote next week. He said Tuesday night that Corpuz's letter had not affected those plans.

Mayor Baarsma said he thought Evans and Lonergan's proposal "will essentially settle the matter" next Tuesday.

Council members declined to discuss what advice the attorneys gave them during their hourlong executive session. State law allows governing bodies to meet in secret sessions to talk with their lawyers about pending litigation.

Corpuz, under fire for his hiring and personnel decisions concerning the late police chief, David Brame, put himself on administrative leave May 6. The action came 10 days after Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and committed suicide.

Council members have been trying to speed up Corpuz's retirement - either through negotiations with him or an outright dismissal - ever since they learned the Brame investigations would take months.

Miller has said council members were contemplating options ranging from no severance pay to one week's pay for every year of Corpuz's service as city manager - a sum that could total more than $45,000.

On June 9, Crystal Brame's family filed a $75 million claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the city. The claim accuses the city of neglect for hiring David Brame, promoting him to police chief and not adequately supervising him.

There are lots of reasons the council might be guarded in its dealings with Corpuz, said Karen Koehler, the Bellevue attorney who sued the City of Seattle over the Mardi Gras riot in which Kristopher Kime, a young man who tried to intervene in a beating, was killed.

Corpuz's knowledge of the Brame case is probably the biggest one, she said. "Normally, they would be able to fire him," Koehler said. "All of a sudden, they're scared to touch him. He obviously has stuff to bargain with."

Alienating Corpuz raises the possibility he could shift sides and begin helping the plaintiffs' lawyer, she said. Or, if the council fires him, he might sue for wrongful dismissal.

The possibility of a severance package, meanwhile, has drawn some scrutiny from state Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Sonntag doesn't believe the city can simply give Corpuz a severance package without receiving something in return. Because Corpuz works without a contract, severance pay without some kind of "consideration" could be considered an illegal gift of public funds, he said.

"They certainly can't just give it as a gift" because Corpuz has done a good job or because council members like him, Sonntag said.

An agreement from Corpuz to not file a claim against the city could qualify as "consideration," he said.

Staff writers Skip Card and Jason Hagey contributed to this report.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659