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Severance paid to city attorney unusual

The city does not often pay employees to leave its employ. And when they do, the amounts are fairly modest. Yet former City Attorney Bob Sterbank received a check for $137,500 after he resigned — the equivalent of more than a year’s salary. The amount was 20 percent more than the total amount that the city paid to all others over the past five years combined.

Recent stories in the Reporter regarding the departure of two top administrators at the City included information on the amount of severance pay that former attorney Bob Sterbank received when he left the city less than a year after he was hired.

Turnover at the city of Mercer Island is low in comparison to other regional cities, said city manager, Rich Conrad. Severance agreements are a rarity.

Conrad said that in the past ten years, he can only remember two employees who have legally challenged the city after dismissal. Neither signed a severance agreement. One of those is former city attorney and assistant city manager, Londi Lindell. Lindell has filed a claim against the city for the amount of $1 million.

The Reporter requested information from the city regarding all employees in addition to Sterbank, who signed severance or release agreements. The city paid a total of $113,000 to 10 people for an average of about $11,000 each. The city employs an average of just under 200 people.

Including Sterbank, the city signed 13 agreements with employees who were terminated over the past five years. Two agreements however were for employees who were not paid any money but instead were offered references from the city and the removal of documents from their permanent files.

The city paid those who left the city because their hours were cut, their job was changed in a reorganization or after coming to a mutual understanding that the employee should resign.

Five were paid severance because their jobs changed, hours were reduced or their positions were eliminated. Two long-time employees were paid severance-type payments after they resigned for personal reasons. Payments to most included pay for unused time off. The documents from the city indicate that half a dozen employees, including Sterbank, reached an agreement with the city and were paid to resign rather than be fired.

Severance agreements protect the city from litigation from an employee who feels that he/she has been treated unfairly. It is money that protects the city from potentially costly lawsuits in the future.

“Severance agreements essentially end the issues surrounding an employee,” Conrad explained.

“It helps give the employee a ‘soft landing’ and lets everyone move on.”

The amounts paid ranged from $21,000 Nancy Fairchild, the former ___ to $2,862 to DavidMaybee, a maintenance technician who had his hours cut because of a reorganization. The employees paid the most money also included long-time planning department head Richard Hart, who was paid $17,700. Dee Totten was paid $15,671 in 2006 because her position in emergency planning was eliminated. The city has since restored a somewhat similar position in emergency management.

The 13 agreements also include provisions for how long insurance would be continued (through COBRA at employee’s expense) and other details. Nearly all signers were ensured that the city would give a favorable reference on behalf of the employee and that any detrimental documents would be removed from an employees file. All agreements included statements that the parties would agree not to disparage or be detrimental to either party.

Sterbank worked for the city for about 10 months. He was extended a verbal offer for employment on January 26, 2007 and agreed to begin work in late March 2007. According to emails and other documents from the city, Sterbank took additional time before working full time at his new job in order to resettle his family. His job officially ended when the severance agreement was signed by Sterbank and Mayor Jim Pearman on January 28, 2008.

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