City pay raises saga continues

Last night the Sunnyside City Council, after hearing from the investigative committee on pay practices, decided to forward a report prepared by Attorney Amy Stephson of Seattle to the Yakima County prosecutor.

The investigative committee was formed last December. Mayor Jim Restucci tasked the committee with an investigation into whether employees of the city were awarded raises without council approval. If unauthorized pay raises were awarded, the committee was to discover by whom and when the pay raises were awarded.

The investigation focused on pay raises primarily given by Interim City Manager Jim Bridges, after Councilman Don Vlieger questioned salaries listed during the budget session last November.

The committee in January decided to task City Manager Mark Gervasi with consulting a third party, one well-versed in employment law. He recommended Stephson, who had been referred to him by the city's insurance company (Washington Cities Insurance Authority) and council approved the recommendation.

Stephson conducted an investigation, utilizing city records and interviewing Public Works Director Jim Bridges, Deputy City Manager and Chief Financial Officer Byron Olson and Human Resources Officer Anna Bullock.

The investigation centered around pay raises provided to Information Technology Specialist Ryan Austin, City Planner Jamey Ayling and five other employees. However, Stephson also investigated pay raises provided to past Sunnyside employees Troy Huff and Terri Rhode, as well as several other employees.

The investigative committee believed the findings submitted by Stephson should be forwarded to the Yakima County prosecutor.

Council first accepted the report by a unanimous vote of consent.

"I believe we need a motion on whether or not to refer this to the county prosecutor and then we should discuss the merits of the information provided by Councilman Vlieger," said Councilman Pablo Garcia.

He said the committee wanted the issue "put to bed" and the only way to remove the "shadow" hanging over council was to have the matter reviewed by the prosecutor.

However, Vlieger provided the council with additional documentation gathered during his own investigation into the pay raises.

He obtained a document from Rhode that stated the pay raise provided to Austin was questioned by her. She said she asked Bridges about the pay raise. According to Rhode, Bridges, then the interim city manager, told her it wasn't a concern to him because the technology director position vacated by Huff was in the budget.

"I believe the only way to get closure is by providing the materials to the prosecuting attorney," said Vlieger.

He felt all materials gathered in his investigation should accompany Stephson's report.

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock disagreed. "It appears one person is targeted and not all past city managers," she said.

She also said Vlieger's documentation was obtained on his own accord. She said he had included in the material several communications authored by himself and those documents do not reflect the opinion of the entire council.

"It is the city's responsibility to implement policies...we would have to go quite a ways back (to ensure a thorough investigation)," said Hancock, noting unauthorized pay raises were awarded employees by several city managers before Bridges filled in on an interim basis.

Stephson's report concluded Bridges did not know the pay raises awarded warranted council approval.

"...the evidence shows that he took these actions at the recommendation of or with the concurrence of other city executives, and in at least two cases, with the knowledge of the council. The evidence also shows that neither he, Byron Olson or Anna Bullock had reason to know the council approval was required for this category of personnel actions," Stephson said in her findings.

Vlieger disputes the findings, stating the report is incomplete.

"Stephson doesn't supply supporting evidence in her report," he said.

Hancock said the council, if it wished to pursue a criminal investigation, should "dig deeper on our own, reviewing Kunkler, Swansen and Stockwell."

Kunkler, Swansen and Stockwell all served Sunnyside as city manager in the past.

She said she did not believe Bridges' actions were intentional.

Vlieger argued, "Terri Rhode was not questioned by Stephson."

Mayor Jim Restucci entered the discussion some time later, stating, "The committee was not created for a witch hunt, but to decide whether or not pay raises were given without council approval...I wanted the citizens to know the council doesn't condone the misuse of city funds."

He tried to quell arguments earlier made during the unscheduled appearances of citizens portion of last night's meeting and by council members that the actions of Bridges is equal to the actions of recently prosecuted Virginia Perez, who was convicted on five counts of felony theft for embezzling funds from the Sunnyside Police Department.

"(The comparison) is inaccurate," said Restucci. "It doesn't even rise to what she did."

He told council that he has reason to believe the Yakima County prosecutor will not move forward with an investigation into the pay raise matter, but might forward the investigation to the Washington State Patrol.

Restucci noted the city of Granger had a similar investigation into a former mayor that was treated in such a manner.

Council decided in a split 4-3 decision to forward the Stephson report to the prosecutor and later decided not to forward Vlieger's documentation to the prosecutor by a 5-2 vote.

The council members deciding to forward the Stephson report included Vlieger, Mike Farmer, Garcia and Restucci. The two votes in favor of forwarding Vlieger's documentation were those of Vlieger and Farmer.


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