Serendipitous Timing or Self-Dealing?
As Sewer District forefather Jim Mitchell taught us, sound leaders navigate their districts away from anything with even the remote appearance of wrong-doing .
All of the somewhat unseemly leveraging of public monies and resources occurring in the municipal game of thrones detailed earlier occurs against the backdrop and context of the unique path Lake Stevens Sewer District shot caller Mariah Low took in becoming the “quarter mil manager”.
As recently as September 2020, Low was an elected district commissioner, serving a six-year term and making about $15k a year.
Low stepped down from that position, saying her goodbyes on social media and receiving parallel plaudits and “you’ll be missed” message
It is with great sadness we have received Commisioner Mariah Low's letter of resignation from the Board of Directors. Mariah was an incredible commissoner always putting the Lake Stevens District and Community's best interest first. She truly is one of a kind, and did one heck of a job as a Commissioner. She will be missed by all of us here.
Lake Stevens Sewer District Facebook Post, October 9, 2021
Less than a month later, the district took to Facebook with news of an (externally) surprising hire.
We are excited to announce…Mariah Low as the next General Manager for the Lake Stevens Sewer District. Please join us in welcoming and congratulating…Mariah.
Lake Stevens Sewer District Facebook Post, Nov. 17, 2021
The city was highly critical of the move, ultimately filing suit, alleging the district ignored city protests about the process leading to Low’s appointment. The serendipitous timing of the episode gave the appearance of self dealing, which also drew the attention of area media.
J425 ran the scenario by an analyst at the Municipal Research Services Center. With literally millions of dollars in compensation up for grabs via a process governed by as few as three elected commissioners, the utmost scrutiny must be given when appearances of conflict arise.
At the heart of the matter? Public agencies work for their citizenry. They are spending directly from the wallets and checking accounts of those they serve. It’s the responsibility of the electeds to be shrewd stewards of public money. An executive role pulling down a quarter mil a year will generate a wide array of talent. The odds that the best possible candidate is serving in an elected role responsible for filling the position? Statistically improbable, the analyst said. Accordingly, a wide net should be cast in order to locate the best candidate for the executive role.
“When elected officials appoint themselves to salaried roles within their district, it can raise concerns about self-dealing. Transparency and accountability are essential to avoid conflicts of interest,” the analyst.
State law prohibits elected officials from using their positions to secure special privileges or special exemptions for themselves or others, and from entering into certain contracts or having other personal financial interests with their jurisdictions.
Elected officials are also barred from using non-public information for personal gain.
Common sense is a good guide here. Sound leaders will navigate their districts away from anything with even the appearance of conflict. Maintaining this standard insures the best governance.
Remain Above Scrutiny
Set against the backdrop of the initial hire, the commission’s decision to engineer the Dec. 28 raises in a manner seemingly designed to avoid public scrutiny frustrates.
Issues like this require public vetting and a good faith, transparent debate accompanied by reference documentation so the citizenry can follow along.
State law requires that (RCW 42.30.140(4)) discussion (and final action) by a governing body on salaries, wages, and performance bonuses must occur in a meeting open to the public.1 When a governing body takes final action setting the salary of an individual employee or class of employees, that action too shall be taken in a meeting open to the public.
It’s difficult to see how this occurred with the December 28 raises.
The action item authorizing the raise was drafted by the Commission President on the day of the December 28 meeting — but the documentation wasn’t included in the packet. Instead, a decision regarding the routing of millions of dollars in public funds was buried on the consent agenda and adopted en masse without discussion.
Placing the item on the consent agenda implies that the matter had been thoroughly reviewed and discussed by the commissioners previously – steps that would’ve required both time and public meetings.
Steps that either didn’t occur or are not properly recorded.
So taken at face value, it appears that either the commission adopted a massive pay raise without knowing what they were voting on; or the matter had been reviewed and discussed previously outside of the public meeting framework.
State law is setup to avoid last minute secretive deals like this. That’s what I was once told by a famous Lake Stevens local leader, at least. And he knew what he was talking about. Jim Mitchell is the forefather of Lake Stevens sewer districts. At the time I last interviewed him, the split between the city and the district was based around the fact that each entity had its own sewer system.
Mitchell saw well past the much-smaller version of Lake Stevens that existed then, however. He told me it was near impossible to achieve efficiency in governance when local agencies scrap over power or resources. Agencies must be unified at least in purpose until a practical unification occurs. Mitchell referred to symbitoic relationships as “marching to the beat of the same drum”, sayin that such synchronicity requires leaders to align themselves to the tempo of the band instead of their own rhythms. Hopefully this is a lesson that Lake Stevens can take to heart before further unappealing “appearances” further damage public trust in governance.