Sewer District's Quarter Mil Manager Explains Why Salon Michelle Was Forced Out of Business
Michelle Myers' 24-year-run operating Lake Stevens' premiere salon -- and the only business with a view of the lake comes to an abrupt close
“They basically took my retirement from me.”
TEXAS - Dispisable. Used. That’s how Lake Stevens resident Michelle Myers feels these days, as she spends unexpected idle time with family in Texas just a month after the Lake Stevens Sewer District elected to terminate the lease for Myers’ Salon Michelle - the popular LS salon and spa whose 24-year-run on the second story of the Vernon Road Building came to an abrupt end recently.
J425 noticed that Salon Michelle was no longer in existence while prepping a status update on the ongoing merger negotiations between the City of Lake Stevens and the district.
We’d last checked the proceedings late Fall and found that everything seemed copacetic. Three years of expensive, contentious legal squabbling had apparently come to a close.
Best of all, the city and the district had, according to documents shared during a November Utility Committee meeting, agreed in principle on a merger schedule that would see the city fully adopt the sewer district before the end of this calendar year, ending what had at times been an extremely adversarial and outsized battle between the cash-rich special purpose district and one of the state’s fastest growing municipalities.
In 2021, Low was an elected public servant on a $14k annual salary. But she woke up January 1, 2024 making damn near a cool quarter mil a year.
That was before the sewer district’s December to Remember, a month-long streak of tone-deaf, we-don’t gotta-explain-shit-to-any-of-you, organizational me-firstery unparalleled in J425’s two decades of working in and covering local politics.
If you think callously closing down the local small business icon with arguably the biggest rolodex in Lake Stevens is a tough act to follow: here, hold my Celcius Peach Vibe:
Because parallel to ending a well-loved, job creating business —for literally no good reason — the district was busy buying an $80,000 Ford Lightning. For their internal use. Pay now, maybe it arrives by July.
Two weeks later…on the last business day of the year…commissioners approved a one line item, buried in a consent agenda, without public debate, description, or a shred of documentation.1
Later we found out that this item was a placeholder for an instant $75,000 per-year raise for the district general manager (now making a cool $220,000 a year).... and parallel 36% increases for two other administrators. Serious cash out the back door, lining pockets, without debate, documentation, explanation or discussion. This very generous raise capped an astronomical rise for sewer district manager Mariah Low, who just two and a half years ago, was an elected public servant on a $14k annual salary. She woke up January 1, 2024 making damn near a cool quarter mil a year.
“They Took My Retirement”
Michelle Myers, on the other hand, woke up in Texas as the calendar flipped to 2024. Her business: gone. Her future: unclear. Myers tells J425 that the eviction cost the jobs of several employees and ended what she described as the district’s multi-year effort to push her out.
Four years ago, Myers said the district drastically raised her rent and tripled her net costs: a move that she viewed as an attempt to force her out. She stuck it out. This time, despite a narrowing horizon of control on this space the district removed any subtlety, terminating the Salon Michelle lease.
The district’s decision to terminate Myers’ lease not only shuttered a popular business and put multiple employees out of work – the decision also transformed a public retail space famous for the fact that it’s the only retail location in the area where one can actually see the lake… into an unoccupied space… reserved for possible sewer district use.
This is only compounded by the fact that the district seemingly elected IN to ending Salon Michelle.
After all, with the city scheduled to assume all sewer district responsibilities sometime in the next six to nine months…what could explain the motivation or utility behind ending a 24-year lease…for a space that they won’t even control next year?2
Seeking a good-faith, plain-language explanation behind the district’s actions, J425 reached out to sewer district leadership requesting an interview or face to face conversation.
District General Manager Mariah Low responded with the following statement:
The District entered into a Commercial Property Lease Agreement with Salon Michelle April 1, 2018. The term of lease was for 33 months with the option of the Tenant extending the Lease up to three years. The District honored the terms of the Lease as well as all three extension years. The District intends to utilize the recently vacated space for District staff and operations.
J425 replied, restating our request to speak with Low or a designee. The request went unanswered.
Will opaque year-end pay raises for well-compensated district administration derail merger talks with the City?
The Salon Michelle closure… accompanied by a couple eye-opening end-of-the-year decisions have many in the business and civic community discussing the actions of a cash-rich, citizen-owned entity – the motivations of which – for many Lake Stevens citizens and officials – remain difficult to understand.
As a result of 36 percent raises adopted via an empty item on the December 28, 2023 consent agenda, sewer district GM Mariah Low is now set to make over $220,000 per annum with two other administrators receiving similar increases.
To be fair, Low’s salary is not entirely unheard of for the position and responsibility she holds – the real problem could lie in how the abrupt raises relate to a city pay scale that must integrate Low and two other administrators into the city org chart.
At issue: will the opaque year-end pay raises for well-compensated district administration threaten to derail merger talks with the City that’d reached the final stages?
The fact that Low’s salary will make her the second highest paid city employee is a bit of a poison pill, given that the sewer district is set to be absorbed by the Public Works, where the sewer manager will report to a department head; who in turn reports to the City Administrator – all but one of whom receive less compensation than their new direct report.
Mariah Low General Manager
2024: $220,000 2021: $142,800
Jonathan Dix Assistant GM
2024: $186,000 2021: $129,500
As of the November dual meeting between the city and the district, both sides were working towards the imminent completion of the merger process. Shared documents show a completion date of January 1, 2025.
The City has promised to resettle all district employees and the decision was made some time ago that the sewer district will organizationally fit into Public Works. One of the last remaining hang ups under negotiation: where will Low and her deputy Johnathan Dix fit in the city’s org chart.
In previous Utility Commission meetings, Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey has stated that Low is best-positioned to continue managing the sewer operations under the City, and that her role would translate to a deputy director of Public Works, overseeing sewer operations.
District commissioners have pushed back against this, suggesting that Low should report only to the mayor or perhaps to the City Administrator.
As of late last year, one plan forwarded by sewer commissioners posited that Low should surrender the sewer management position to her deputy… and takeover a temporary manager-of-the-transition consultant-ish position.
Upon expiration of the temporary position, Low could then assume an administrative position, per that line of thinking.
It’s because of this background that the district’s decision to quietly advance sizeable raises could be viewed as an attempt to circumvent negotiations about whether Low belongs in Public Works (overseeing sewer operations – an apples for apples translation of her current role) or in the higher-ranking administrative position preferred by district commissioners, where she wouldnt have to report to departmental manager.
It’s because of this context that the sudden pay raises adopted by the district could be seen as a strategy designed to force the city to place Low in an administrative position commensurate with her new salary or face the prospect of upsetting the entire city payscale.
To her credit, Low has received high marks as a leader from both staff and electeds, with the commissioners ultimately awarding Low a $75k raise on the basis (in part) of her excellent performance.
The fact that what will amount to millions of dollars of taxpayer expenditures were effectively buried on a consent agenda item unsupported by public discussion, explanation or paperwork also raises questions about when and how the commission discussed the raises in question.
The matter did not appear on any previous agenda items – but in placing and adopting an item through the consent agenda (where multiple items can be adopted en masse), the commissioners are effectively affirming that the items adopted without explanation or discussion have been “previously reviewed in detail”. This seems unlikely. 3
Any review and discussion of the document between commissioners prior to the vote wouldve required an open public meeting (or an argument for an executive session). Neither occurred prior to the adoption of the consent agenda. I’ll try and reduce this to plain language.
These massive raises appeared for the first time on December 28, 72 hours before they were set to kick in.
The proposal was written the day of the 28th. It wasn’t made available for public or commission review prior to the vote. The sponsor of the item did not explain the item to the public or the commissioners. And yet the item was adopted, with the supporting paperwork revealing financial outlay following later.
So how did the commissioners know what they were voting on? And given that the proposal didn’t exist until earlier that morning, when, if ever did Kosche make his case to the other two voting members?
And that’s where we’re left with the murky financial dealings of the sewer district. We’re left reading tea leaves and judging appearances, parsing terse explanations for decisions that seem moored to some hidden set of imperatives.
And I emphasize the term appearance. Because we don’t know. And I for one assume the best in civil servants. So yes, I believe in coincidences. But I also believe in taking responsibility for appearances.
It probably was just coincidence that Mariah Low stepped down from a $15k position as an elected commissioner just days before the current general manager vacated her role. Low didn’t have fore knowledge of the impending vacancy. Stuff like this just happens in life, all the time.
And although it seems like publicly posting what’s turned out to be a quarter million dollar a year job across the nation in search for the broadest range of candidates seems like the proper step for a commission tasked with judicially guarding our financial interests…it certainly may be the case that any such search wouldve just amounted to a waste of time, as the best candidate was already available in the form of the recently departed commissioner Mariah Low.
Yeah, it attracted the attention of a few papers and yes the city sued the district over this process…but in the end she’s done a good job. So maybe the appearance of possible impropriety was just that. Chalk that up to coincidences.
But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. So when we’re presented with the spectre of massive raises… pushed through without public process, on the last business day of the year, hours before the raises are to go in effect, via one sentence on a consent agenda, adopted en masse without any supporting paperwork or public discussion, on a timeline that seemingly rules out any opportunity for review or discussion… it’s frustrating to say the least. Not because I think they broke the law. But because seemingly didn’t care enough to take the steps to remove the appearance of impropriety from the equation. And given the previous context, given the huge sums of our money at issue here…the public was owed better.
It’s a big damn deal to shut a 24-year-business and put people out of work. A big damn deal. Michelle matters to a lot of people in this town. And the fact that the district chose to evict Salon Michelle with full knowledge that the district won’t even be responsible for the space or the lease in a matter of months? It comes off as vindictive. Tone deaf. Out of touch. Unexplainable, because it’s unexplained.
The district’s decision to evict and shutter a locally-owned small business raised questions on multiple fronts. The timeline requires explanation. At the time of the decision to end Myers’ lease, the district was engaged in merger talks with the Citywith an end-of-the-year completion date.
Meaning by 2025, sewer commissioners and district administrators wouldn’t have control over Myers’ business or the retail space she leased: post merger, those decisions become city business – as is the housing of sewer district staff who will have access to a much larger footprint of city-owned facilities, including a brand new city campus (more on that in a few). In short, it sure seems like a friendlier approach would’ve been to not kill the local business and allow the city to decide – perhaps even through a transparent discussion – whether it’s a good idea to close locally-owned and well loved job creating businesses. And if the assumption timeline provides the first question around this decision, the second question is why this path was taken under any conditions.
In several decades covering and working in local government, it’s J425’s experience that locally elected officials take every opportunity to support small business, promote local job creation, and foster relationships with business and retail communities. In the very rare occurrences when political or practical conditions required encroachment on a local business, great care is given to the issue and the decision-making process is carried out with public involvement, transparency and clear communication.
In other words, if the sewer district is going to kill a local small business, we need to hear what we – the community that owns the sewer district – is getting out of the equation. And the district’s argument should start from the assumption that most people who live here think it’s more important to back a small business than to close it so staff can use the space instead. Post eviction, the space will sit empty for 2024, pending improvements.
What benefits the community gained by the Sewer District’s closure of the only retail space with a view of the lake remain a mystery, as J425 was unable to find any public explanation of what must’ve been a weighty decision, given the fact that public servants would typically be loathe to close a well-loved, locally-owned job-creating business.
And when you lay the loss of a well-loved business parallel to the other actions that the district elected to take during the exact same time period, community attitudes become better understood — and harder to dismiss.
A new $80,000 Ford Lightning? Sure what the hell!
An extra $75k per year lopped on to a public servant’s salary with no discussion or explanation? Why not. We don’t answer to anyone, and we owe zero explanations.
That’s certainly the vibe this entire series of episodes gives off. It’s a vibe that’s reflected in the public reviews posted on the sites where the district can’t remove negative comments (Facebook pages ARE archived, those comments aren’t really deleted). And it’s hard to make any sort of blanket rejection of the public criticism found on Google and Yelp and Glassdoor.
Why? Because the same people are also reviewing the city, and the school district. And while you’ll also find some unfair or over the top negativity in city and school disgtrict reviews…people feel a whole different type of way about the district. Or more specifically, people feel a certain way about how the district treats them and/or makes them feel.
At the end of the day, perception is reality. Those people registering their displeasure? They own the Vernon Road Building. They own the Ford Lightening. That’s their quarter of a million per year in cash handed out through non-competitive processes and augmented by opaque, last second 36 percent year-over-year raises. And if you read the sewer district’s reviews, you don’t have to strain hard to find the type of anger and indignity that one would expect from Joe Sixpack, when they find out that the lady whose cut three generations of their family’s hair just found herself out on her ass without so much as even a courtesy explanation.
And yet, despite all of this criticism, the district leadership still has the opportunity to prove all of the inferences wrong. Adopt the Nordstrom approach. Reach out and fix these issues. Give Michelle her space back, or failing that, provide us with some sort of sense that someone was aware that it’s considered bad to wipe out local businesses without explanation. Stand up a little straighter and recognize that when you fail to address the criticism levied in a constituent’s letter, you look far worse than you’d ever come off by simply reading the letter into record and offering your bosses – the community – a direct explanation. That never looks bad.