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Editorial: McCleary mayor puts employee on leave for daring to ask questions

McCleary Mayor Gary Dent has put his public works director on administrative leave for asking too many questions and giving unsolicited feedback to the public. It’s anyone’s guess when he’ll be back.

For instance, during the McCleary City Council’s Nov. 20 meeting, Public Works Director Nick Bird suggested to the council and the public that one way to raise revenue to avoid the layoff of a police officer would be to extend the city’s utility tax on power. Unlike other cities on the Harbor, McCleary owns its own power utility and doesn’t rely on the Grays Harbor PUD.

Bird said that the council had already approved a rate hike, set to take effect in January. He suggested that the council suspend the rate hike and, instead, increase the utility tax. For the ratepayer, it would be the same difference. Their bill would still go up. The only difference would be that there would be extra money added into the general fund to potentially save a police officer’s job.

Council members raised their eyebrows at the idea, concerned the city’s utility funds may not be able to support themselves without the rate hike.

Still, it was pretty good out-of-the-box thinking at a time that the mayor decided not to show up to the meeting after throwing a financial hand grenade into the room and decided he was going to lay off a police officer, a police clerk, stop funding the museum’s utilities (which puts the museum in danger of closing) and other cuts in the 2014 budget. Mayor Dent also threatened to “dismantle” the police force and lay everyone off to potentially contract with the county or Elma, outsource the fire department services to Elma, close the parks, the cemetery, the library and many other services for the 2015 budget.

To the mayor’s credit, he’s announced that he’s battling cancer and I wish him well in his battle.

Nobody else has been giving suggestions on how to get the city of McCleary out of the hole besides a bunch of draconian cuts. Many council members have questions, but the mayor prefers to answer them not in a public meeting but privately.

Mayor Dent wasn’t there at the Nov. 20 meeting. A day or so later, Bird was placed on administrative leave.

At first, Dent put Bird on leave for about 10 days. It’s since been extended, the mayor confirmed in a phone interview.

Dent says there’s other reasons for Bird being out on leave, but he didn’t want to go into it.

I wish I could tell you more, but the mayor has not created a paper trail on Bird’s administrative leave. This is a pretty risky move that anyone in a human resources department would probably have a stroke over.

On Nov. 25, I did a public records request with the city asking for any letters of discipline or suspension notices given to McCleary city staff since Nov. 1 of this year. There were no records that turned up — even though Bird was already, allegedly, on administrative leave.

On Dec. 5, I spoke with Mayor Dent about his public works director on leave. During the City Council meeting the day before, so many people had told me that Bird was out on leave for mysterious circumstances that I knew something was up. The mayor said he did hand Bird a document. Well, if he did, Mayor Dent has failed to inform his public records clerk.

I did another records request on Dec. 5 and that very day, Dent did send a memo to Bird with the subject line “Employment Status.” The letter states, “Based upon comments that have been made to me, you apparently have misunderstood my direction to you. I am reaffirming that you are not to return to your position as Director of Public Works for the City of McCleary until you hear otherwise from me.”

Why? It’s anyone’s guess.

“I’m not ready to tell you or anyone else the particulars on this,” Dent said, besides confirming what was already said: that the mayor wasn’t happy that Bird had been speaking up on his budget.

Bird serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Whether he’s still being paid or not will be the subject of another public records request. One of the McCleary Council members told me they thought he’s on vacation. … Well, maybe he’s using vacation time, but he’s certainly not on vacation of his own design.

At the end of the McCleary City Council meeting on Dec. 4, the council went into executive session to discuss potential litigation. The key word there is “potential.” It’s such a catchall phrase that city attorneys like Dan Glenn can use it for just about any purpose to talk about the liabilities of what the city could be facing in the future.

With so many people angry at the mayor and the city, the list of potential litigants could be pretty big that maybe the city ought to consider many more executive sessions to discuss potential litigation in the future:

• You’ve got Bird out on leave for no good, written reason and no paper trail to back up the punishment.

• You’ve got police officers about to lose their job.

• You’ve got the mayor openly discussing closing down the court — a separate branch of government — and contracting with Elma.

• You’ve got an angry public upset their favorite city services could be on the cutting room floor.

• You’ve got talk of closing the museum when there might be a contract stipulation that the original family would get it back if it closes.

• You’ve got talk of closing the library, which is run by contract with the Timberland Regional Library District.

• You’ve got issues with the transfer of funds from one account to the other with no one really knowing how much really can legally be transferred.

I did a records request for precursors to lawsuits filed against the city of McCleary and only found one family angry that they lost a lot of food in a freezer when the power went out and a complaint after the city hydrant flushing ended up with water inside a building.

Who knows?

Maybe the gal who lost her meatballs, peas and frozen lasagna when the power went out is about to sue the city, although I have my doubts there. The real question is could the city even afford to pay for her grocery bill? Probably not at this point.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at editor@thevidette.com