Following his appointment last week by Mayor Ava Frisinger, Robert “Bob” Harrison has been confirmed as the next city administrator by the unanimous vote of Issaquah’s City Council at their Sept. 20 meeting. This appointment finalizes an extensive process to find a replacement for Leon Kos, who retired last spring after serving as Issaquah’s city administrator for 33 years.
Prior to Monday night’s vote to confirm the appointment, council members John Traeger and Fred Butler lauded the process which they said had found the best person for the job. That process began with input from the Issaquah community as to what they wanted to see in a new administrator, and concluded with a citizen interview panel and the judgement of Mayor Frisinger.
Traeger, who served as a member of that citizen panel said, “I was proud of how our community had input on this process. We reached a pretty much unanimous conclusion that matched other panels.”
Traeger also encouraged the appointment by saying “Bob’s got a lot of extensive experience in city management…from his personal style and his stewardship and economic development and fiscal responsibility. He seemed like a good fit for the city. I support our decision.”
Harrison comes to Issaquah from the midwest. He received his master’s in public administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaulkee, a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and has worked in city management for the last 17 years, most recently as the city manager for Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb north of Cincinnati.
“I am thrilled to appoint Bob as our next administrator,” Mayor Frisinger said in a press release dated Sept. 16. “His dedication to environmental excellence, fiscal stewardship and community involvement – demonstrated by his impressive career in city administration – are a great match for our community.”
His luminous resume and professional references were overshadowed by some dark clouds from Wyoming which followed him west to Issaquah.
Harrison and the City of Wyoming are currently involved in a discrimination lawsuit filed by three former parks department workers. The allegations include gender, racial and disability discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and breach of public policy prohibiting retaliation for complaining of discrimination.
What might have been a simple personnel matter has become a divisive issue among the citizens of Wyoming according to Kelly McBride, a reporter for the Tri-County Press, a regional paper that serves the Wyoming area. Cathy Deters, Michael Pearl and Monica Miller were either fired or resigned following an August 2009 incident where the trio were accused of drinking on city property. Deters told the Tri-County Press there was no progression of discipline and “I was bullied into taking a lie detector test.”
The employees received overwhelming support from the community when more than 150 residents packed the city council meeting on Sept. 21, 2009. Harrison and the city council were not swayed by the show of support and refused to reinstate the three to their previous positions at the recreation department. They subsequently filed the lawsuit that is currently pending in Harrison County Court.
This was not the only time that Harrison has been accused of misconduct. In April of this year, the city council received a letter from the law firm of Freking & Betz outlining inappropriate and unethical conduct by Harrison toward their client Jennifer Chivarria, former finance director for the City of Wyoming.
The letter alleges Harrison repeatedly made sexist comments, and made “inappropriate demands” of Chivarria. When Chivarria “refused to engage in conduct which was inappropriate, unethical, deceitful, and unlawful,” she was told that she had six months to find another job.
Despite demanding a lump sum payment of $120,000, it is understood Chivarria and her lawyer settled out of court for between $20,000 and $30,000.
A number of media outlets in the Puget Sound area, including The Reporter, were made aware of both incidents through phone calls and e-mails from residents of Wyoming, who refused to identify themselves or their relationship with Harrison or the city.
Frisinger and Greg Prothman, a recruiting consultant who led the search for Kos’ replacement, both told The Reporter this week that they were fully aware of the two incidents, and that thorough research had convinced them that Harrison was an exemplary executive.
Prothman, whose own resume includes stints as the City Manager of Des Moines, on the board of the Washington Cities Insurance Authority and in the police force, said he believed harrasment and unlawful dismissal claims such as those leveled against Harrison were an unfortunate, but a regular part of city business, and did not indicate any wrongdoing on Harrison’s behalf.
“It is not uncommon to get these kind of demand letters when you let someone go,” he said. Prothman described Chivarria’s claim as a “nuisance claim,” which, despite little factual basis are typically settled by cities for around $20,000 as it is cheaper than taking the matter to court.
He said the fact that a few Wyoming residents had contacted media outlets in the Issaquah was part of “the most sophisticated smear job I’ve ever seen.”
“As an old cop, I’m not catching much substance to this,” he said. “I’ll guarantee Bob.”
Frisinger, too, was firm in her defense of Harrison and the process that selected him.
“We did a sizable amount of homework,” she said. “I remain convinced we found things that one would expect to be an issue with anyone in an executive position. With any decision there is always someone who is unhappy, particularly the object of the dismissal. There are many claims (in city business). They are myriad. And to settle them is also quite common.”
This week, the man at the center of the allegations, Bob Harrison, was beginning to tie up loose ends in Wyoming ahead of the move to Issaquah in October. He said he sought a position in the Pacific Northwest as his wife was allergic to heat.
“If the temperature gets above 80 – 82 degrees, she has to stay inside in a conditioned environment,” he said. It sounds like western Washington will be just the place for them.
Despite the ongoing litigation and previous claims of harassment, the city council confirmed the mayor’s appointment of Harrison. According to his contract, Harrison will start as city administrator on Oct. 11 and will be paid $150,000 per year.