City records indicate performance issues with Sterbank

J. Jacob Edel and Mary L. Grady
Mercer Island Reporter

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 lot 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 work 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 to Sterbank’s job performance in a document for his file. Conrad wrote that Sterbank’s summer attendance had been a problem and that 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.

An e-mail sent by Conrad to Sterbank on July 30 illustrates the city manager’s frustrations.

“Bob — Just came to my attention from the city of Bellevue that we still don’t have an agreement with the [Jail Advisory Group] to cover Linda’s [Herzog] work for them. I’m sure you will take care of this relatively soon,” Conrad wrote.

However, on Sept. 12, Herzog received an e-mail regarding the unsigned contract from Bellevue officials that asked about the progress of finalizing that contract. Herzog asked Conrad for help.

“I know you know, I was serious about this getting done — ASAP,” Conrad then wrote Sterbank.

In another e-mail dated Nov. 2, 2007, Conrad wrote to now former Assistant City Manager Londi Lindell about how Sterbank worked with the development services department regarding an agreement between the city and Town Center developers.

“This appears to be consistent with my experience of Bob’s CA [City Attorney] style — conservative advocacy sometimes to the detriment of moving things along. (Similar complaints were received from School District and PEAK officials and internal staff). I have more than once asked Bob to be thoughtful in his legal advice so that he doesn’t become an unnecessary impediment to ultimately achieving the city’s goals. After three and a half months this has to be resolved and we need to move on.”

Perhaps most damaging to Sterbank and Lindell, who was fired from the city in April, was their involvement in what others in the city considered to be a minor issue regarding the city’s human resources director Kryss Segle.

Segle’s husband also works for the city. Segle apparently improperly intervened on a personnel matter on behalf of her husband. When the incident escalated and Segle said she was going to resign, Conrad got involved. Sterbank thought that the city manager had acted inappropriately and ordered an investigation into Conrad and his actions.

Other communications indicate that Sterbank felt that Conrad’s action put the city at risk. Lindell, who worked with Sterbank in Federal Way in the past and recommended him for the city attorney job when she was promoted, agreed and later refused to support Conrad, leaving the two attorneys pitted against their superior.

In November, City Council was surprised to learn of an independent third party investigation taking place within city hall. The Council voted to end it at their meeting on Dec. 5. Councilmembers interviewed the city manager’s cabinet regarding the situation. Councilmembers then began investigating the Segle matter and its aftermath. Notes from Corder suggested that Sterbank was using the incident, to act as a whistle-blower to bolster his position and perhaps to deflect previous criticism about his job performance.

In his comments written for the council, Corder said that Lindell and Sterbank created a “mess” within the city manager’s office by looking into potential misconduct that did not exist. During a third and final meeting of the subject on Dec. 17, notes summarizing three Council executive sessions state the Council reached a unanimous decision that Conrad would continue to be the city manager with the full support and confidence from the Council.

In the end, Sterbank was paid a settlement of $135,000 and signed a confidentiality agreement when he left the city at the end of January. Lindell was fired in April without compensation and has filed a claim with the city for $1 million for what she claims was a wrongful termination.

When the city reached a settlement with Sterbank, they wrote a letter of recommendation. The letter acknowledges the work he spent while on Mercer Island regarding legal work on complex public disclosure requests, PEAK, the Parks levy, and labor issues.

“Given his impressive abilities as a municipal attorney, Bob will make an excellent match as city attorney for a wide range of cities in the future,” the letter of recommendation states.

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