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Letter to Islanders accuses city of secrecy, misconduct

Thousands of Islanders have received a fat envelope with extra postage from the Mercer Island Community Council. Many asked themselves, “who is this?”

The envelope contained a sheaf of papers regarding the firing of the former city attorney and assistant city manager, Londi Lindell, and a host of accusations about the City Council and City Manager, Rich Conrad.

The return address of The Mercer Island Community Council is the home of longtime Islander and city activist Ira Appelman. Appelman is the sole member of the Mercer Island Community Council. See related story on page A8.

In his letter to Islanders, Appelman says the firing and subsequent lawsuit filed by Lindell against members of the City Council, Conrad and other city employees illustrates what he believes is the “cover-up of misconduct and alleged misconduct at City Hall” and that the City Council “conducts its business in secret.”

At the heart of the matter is the firing by the city of Lindell just a year ago. Lindell’s firing also relates to the resignation of Bob Sterbank, who was paid a $137,000 settlement after just 10 months as city attorney.

The story begins in 2007 with the illness and death of longtime Assistant City Manager Deb Symmonds. City Attorney Lindell was promoted to fill her place and later assisted in hiring her own replacement. She encouraged the city to hire an old friend and co-worker, Bob Sterbank, who previously worked with her at the city of Federal Way. Sterbank, who was living in Olympia at the time, was hired in early 2007. Originally set to begin work in March or early April, e-mails and correspondence obtained by the Reporter indicate that Sterbank had an extended transition time. Sterbank, who is married with a young child, appears not to have worked full-time at City Hall until September 2007, citing problems with finding suitable child care among other issues. Sterbank did, however, report that he was working from home a good deal. E-mails from Sterbank reporting in on days away from the office, and complaints from those who were waiting for completed work give the impression that there was frustration over unfinished legal work.

Later that year a situation regarding the city’s Human Resources Director, Kryss Segle began to unfold regarding her husband, John Segle, who also works for the city. The city’s nepotism policy does allow family members to work at the city under certain conditions. Kryss Segle’s position in Human Resources meant that she could not be involved with employment or performance issues regarding her husband. Yet she did get involved in a union grievance filed by her husband after a disciplinary action was filed against him. By all accounts, Ms. Segle intervened improperly on these issues and there was a backlash. In the aftermath, Conrad, worried that Kryss Segle would quit, stepped in and said if Segle’s husband would rip up his grievance, the notice of discipline would be removed from his permanent file.

What many would consider a minor incident in the imprecise business of managing people became the basis for a struggle over leadership at the city.

Sterbank, in his capacity as city attorney, sent a memo to Conrad in effect warning him that it appeared that he and Segle were having an improper relationship. Conrad had been disciplined for an improper relationship with a former employee in 2003. The employee resigned her position and received a $90,000 severance payment. Severance payments such as this, and the amount paid to Sterbank, are paid by the city's insurance carrier and do not come out of the city budget. Conrad then was required to attend sexual and anti-harassment training, take time off without pay and had to forgo a raise the following year.

However, the official memo dated Oct. 16, 2003, from then-mayor Alan Merkle to Conrad regarding the complaint, stated that an investigation into the matter “leads to the conclusion that you have not engaged in quid pro quo sexual harassment and that your conduct has not created a hostile work environment.” The memo does go on to say that Conrad, in his position, must be held to a stricter standard in regard to maintaining a positive work environment. Lindell was city attorney at the time of the investigation and would have presumably prepared or reviewed the memo.

E-mails indicate that Segle and her boss, Conrad, do have a close working and personal relationship. Conrad and Segle often met outside work, as did other city employees, presumably to unwind and discuss city business. Similar communications indicated the same type of relationship between Conrad and other city directors, including Lindell and former Parks and Recreation Director Pete Mayer.

Conrad and Segle deny a romantic relationship.

A statement obtained by the Reporter, prepared by City Finance Director Chip Corder, gives an unvarnished view of the situation. Corder wrote that Lindell and Sterbank took on the role of whistleblowers to undermine Conrad’s authority and promote their own agendas and ambitions. There was speculation that Lindell was hoping for the city manager job herself.

In late 2007, a retreat for city management was conducted to clear the air. And later, a more formal investigation into Conrad’s behavior was begun. Alarmed by the sequence of events, three members of the City Council later stopped the investigation in an executive session, gave their support to Conrad and further decided in December that Lindell and Sterbank should be let go.

Weeks later, Sterbank resigned and settled with the city, signing a severance agreement that assured he would not pursue any legal action against the city. He was paid $137,000. Lindell did not resign, was fired in April 2008 and filed a claim against the city for an unlawful termination. She later filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, in which she details what she considers to be an ongoing atmosphere of sexual discrimination and harassment at the city and that there have been repeated violations of the state Open Public Meetings Act. Lindell points out that she had received a rating of “outstanding performance” in her annual performance evaluations for her work at the city.

Defendants named in Lindell’s suit are Mayor Jim Pearman, City Councilman El Jahncke, Corder and Conrad. The legal process regarding these claims is underway. No trial date has been set.

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