Working hard, or hardly working? Documents indicate poor performance was cause of Mercer city attorney's dismissal

A combination of factors led to the departure of Mercer Island City Attorney Bob Sterbank barely a year after being hired by the city.

Documents released by the city after a records request from the Reporter indicate that city officials were not happy with Sterbank’s work. E-mails and notes from city manager Rich Conrad and finance director Chip Corder show that Sterbank was absent during much of the first few months of taking his job and was not timely or responsive to requests for legal services.

Other documents indicate Sterbank did not finish work on key projects in a timely manner, and that he created problems for other city departments and citizens waiting for approvals or legal review. Conrad said Sterbank created more conflict than was necessary with some issues while more routine legal matters languished.

Sterbank, 44, was hired in January of 2007 at a salary of $131,440, a lump sum hiring incentive of $7,000 and full benefits of a city director. Sterbank signed the letter dated Jan. 26, 2007 which acknowledged that he would begin working with the city no later than the work week following the completion of the state legislative session (late April, 2007). Time sheets that reflect the hours city directors were in the office are not available.

Sterbank, who left the city in January, disagrees that his attendance and performance were what led up to his departure from the city. Sterbank also claims he was working full time for the city throughout the summer, despite documents by city manager Rich Conrad and city finance director Chip Corder that state the contrary.

“I think my work was excellent and timely,” said Sterbank. “My performance was exemplary. I never received negative comments about my performance. There was never a performance evaluation.”

Sterbank said he spent a large amount of his time last summer working on a public records request from the Seattle PI regarding the city’s punishment of a police officer arrested for a DUI in late 2006 and working regarding the Boys and Girls Club PEAK project.

“I wonder how I could do that work and be at Council meetings if in fact I was not in the office,” said Sterbank.

The documents received by the Reporter did not include a formal performance evaluation regarding Sterbank or any e-mails sent to Sterbank during the summer that specifically stated his attendance was a problem. However, in September, Conrad outlined five concerns relating Sterbank’s job performance in a document for his file. Conrad wrote Sterbank’s summer attendance had been a problem and he had received complaints from other directors. While Conrad stated he was sympathetic with Sterbank’s problem finding adequate child care, he expected him to work those issues out soon.

While the city manager was concerned about Sterbank’s summer attendance, Conrad also expressed the view that Sterbank was only working on high profile work such as the PEAK project and the building code violations of a former Councilmember. Conrad wrote that he pushed less visible work to his assistant, now acting city attorney Katie Knight. Additional e-mails from city employees confirm they were sometimes waiting weeks for assistance from Sterbank.

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