Fired city administrator disputes mayor's claims

MABTON - He said, she said. As is often the case when someone has been discharged from their job, like the recent termination of Mabton City Administrator Ildia Heitzman, two versions of what led up to the firing are usually forthcoming.

Mabton Mayor Velva Herrera issued a letter of termination to Heitzman a week and a half ago. That brought an end to the paychecks Heitzman had been collecting since mid-August 2006, when Herrera placed the long-time city administrator on paid leave.

The two parties, not surprisingly, are at odds on what actually occurred and led up to the dismissal of Heitzman, who until she recently got married had the last name of Jackson.

In the letter of termination sent to Heitzman on June 28, which Heitzman confirms she received the following day, Herrera states that misconduct by the city administrator violated municipal policies and procedures, as well as city, state and federal codes. In the letter, Herrera cites a report recently released by the state auditor's office, used to back up her claims of misconduct. The letter goes on to tell Heitzman that both the mayor and the city council have lost confidence in Heitzman's ability to properly execute the functions of city administrator and public safety officer.

Heitzman contends she has done nothing wrong. She said when she was originally placed on paid leave by Herrera, it was her belief the mayor was going to review background information on a Mabton police officer.

"Since this time she (Herrera) has pursued many dead ends in an attempt to discredit my reputation," Heitzman said during a telephone interview from her Union Gap home late last week.

Heitzman said Herrera has not been able to substantiate any of the allegations she's made.

In the series of events that transpired in Mabton leading up to the firing, most - if not all, are disputed by Heitzman and Herrera.

Heitzman claims from the beginning, the proceedings have been an unfair process initiated by the mayor and city council, who together didn't want any advice from the paid professional staff. Instead, said Heitzman, they wanted to make a political statement by terminating her.

According to Heitzman, the chain of events started to unfold when the city of Mabton was attempting to find a replacement for Mabton Police Chief Raul Almeida, who resigned last summer. Heitzman says when the mayor indicated she wanted to promote a police officer already on staff to the position of chief, Heitzman told her he wasn't qualified. Heitzman said the officer hadn't attended the Washington State Police Academy, and that she told Herrera she didn't believe the officer had enough experience to successfully complete the police academy courses.

In the termination letter sent to Heitzman the end of June, Herrera notes there were some irregularities discovered during the process of trying to promote the officer, and that Heitzman knew of them and had put the city at legal risk.

"The officer is still working with the city," Heitzman said last week. "Obviously, there were not too many irregularities."

The termination letter from Herrera also charges Heitzman with swearing in the police officer in question as a fully commissioned officer back in May 1997, despite the fact that he hadn't attended the state police academy. Heitzman denies having done so, but Herrera counters that the city administrator's signature is on the officer's oath of office form.

Heitzman says city officials in October of last year charged her with several other violations, including not changing street light bulbs and misleading the city council on the number of police officers on duty.

"It's not my job to change light bulbs. I just call PP&L and tell them when one is needed," she said.

"As far as misleading the council on the number of officers on duty, they look at the budget and the payroll. They know who is on duty."

It was after this failed attempt to fire her, she said, that the council requested a state audit. The auditor's report was released this past May, in which the original scope and opinion of state auditors stated that city staff had complied with state laws and the city's own policies and procedures in the areas tested. The report also went on to claim that internal controls were adequate to safeguard public assets.

But because the audit also showed there was several non-compliant "issues" communicated to management, some in the community viewed the report as contradictory. Mindy Chambers of the state auditor's office said the audit report will be reissued, reflecting that the city staff complied with state law and city policies in "most" areas tested, and that internal controls "generally" were adequate to safeguard public assets.

Chambers said what remains accurate is the auditors' management letter, noting that some of the city's control over disbursements, and legal and grant compliance, could be improved upon, but that auditors did not find the areas of concern to be significant enough to include in their report.

In reviewing reimbursement claims through a Washington State Traffic Safety grant, the state auditors noted Mabton submitted claims of $30 to $37 for each hour of overtime put in by police officers conducting emphasis patrols. The actual overtime pay should have ranged between $15 and $23.40 per hour. This, said state auditors, resulted in Mabton over-billing the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission nearly $1,500.

The state auditors also noted that $38,818 worth of reimbursement claims were undocumented.

Heitzman disputes these claims, saying the overtime billing was actually "differential" time. She said Mabton's police chief, Almeida, used the "Click it or Ticket" and "Drive Hammered, Get Nailed" programs as a way to pay his officers more because they were giving up their off-hours for the emphasis patrols. The differential pay, said Heitzman, was also a way for Almeida to give his officers incentive to volunteer for the extra patrols.

In the termination letter to Heitzman, Herrera details that had the police officers not been paid at a rate that exceeds both their regular and overtime pay, grant funds could have been directed to other additional purposes.

As far as the $38,818 in undocumented claims, Heitzman said when she left city hall on paid leave every single claim was in the file.

"I can assure you the Traffic Safety Commission would not have reimbursed us if something was wrong," said Heitzman.

Herrera counters that there is no logical explanation why the auditor's office is able to document some claims, but not others.

"It is completely inaccurate to infer that the auditors were not given everything they needed to perform their audit," Herrera says in the termination letter to Heitzman.

In claiming it was Heitzman's responsibilty as city administrator and public safety officer to oversee and properly document claims and reimbursements, Herrera wrote in the termination letter that the auditor's exit conference indicates that Heitzman failed to fulfill her obligation.

"Moreover, as indicated in the exit conference letter, the city is now in a position of having to report the potential overpayment of grant funds, creating a substantial potential liability for the city if the agency demands repayment because the claims can not be documented," Herrera added.

Heitzman argues that early on in 2006 the title of public safety officer was taken from her and given to Almeida.

The two parties are also at odds concerning a July 2005 salary adjustment for the city administrator's assistant, which according to state auditors was in violation of state law and federal grant requirements.

The one-time $1,400 salary adjustment didn't get the approval of the Mabton City Council prior to the payment, but Heitzman says the administrative assistant was actually the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission coordinator, and hence, was not a city employee.

"Therefore, this individual is not subject to any city policies," said Heitzman. "No city, state or federal guidelines were violated, as the appropriate agency approved her salary adjustment...the commission, not the city.

"At some point, the auditors should have been told by the mayor or the city clerk the coordinator was not a city employee."

Herrera argues the project coordinator was paid by the city, even though the salary for that position was reimbursed by the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.

"Moreover, the project coordinator was housed in a city office, was afforded the use of city assets and was treated as a city employee for all intents and purposes," Herrera wrote in Heitzman's termination letter.

The state audit also revealed a Mabton police officer who was not fully commissioned had been improperly enrolled in a state retirement plan. Herrera alleges Heitzman enrolled the officer in the state plan and should have known better. Heitzman counters that it was the city clerk who said the police officer qualified for the state retirement plan based on the number of hours he was working, and admits a mistake was made. She insists, though, it wasn't her who ordered that the officer be enrolled into the state retirement program.

The mayor also claims Heitzman failed to distribute $2,000 worth of child car seats throughout the community. Herrera says because the safety seats were not given to community residents in a timely manner, the city didn't follow through with the terms of the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission grant.

Heitzman said the problem wasn't in the distribution of the seats, rather with locating another agency that would complete follow-up surveys as mandated by the grant.

"I was aware there was a problem, but there didn't seem to be a rush from the traffic safety commission," said Heitzman.

Herrera argues that even though Heitzman delegated the authority to Almeida and the program coordinator, it was ultimately Heitzman's responsibility to see that the terms of the grant were fulfilled.

In the termination letter, Herrera tells Heitzman the fact the car seats were handed out within a couple of weeks after Heitzman was put on paid leave establishes the task could have been performed quickly.

Auditors also found a problem with city-owned computers that had been surplused and were purchased by city employees for $25 each. The money was never collected, which state auditors noted resulted in the gifting of public funds.

Heitzman said a mistake was made and once it was brought to her attention, the proper people were informed. Heitzman also said she had been on vacation when the computers were surplused, but Herrera counters that as city administrator, Heitzman was still responsible to ensure the computers were properly surplused.

Also noted by state auditors is that Heitzman applied $384 of her own money towards a city credit card bill. State auditors went on to recommend that city credit cards never be used for personal expenses, even if reimbursed.

Heitzman said she does remember one time when on city business the airline lost her luggage. She said she used the city credit card to purchase clothes and new luggage, and admits to purchasing a plane ticket for her fiance. Citing special circumstances, Heitzman said when the credit card bill was issued to the city, she wrote a check to cover the personal expenses.

Herrera maintains Heitzman illegally lent herself public credit.

"Not only did you fail to monitor and take precautions so that the law would not be violated, you violated that law yourself," Herrera wrote Heitzman.

The bottom line, according to Herrera, is that Heitzman was fired due to the results of the state audit.

Heitzman insists the letter of recommendations from state auditors is flawed, because the city provided incorrect information to the auditors.

"The official audit reveals no findings in the financial management of the city, as have all my audits to date," said Heitzman.

Heitzman said she is now in the process of exploring her legal options. Herrera said the city of Mabton doesn't have any plans to look for another city administrator.


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