ILWACO — At a meeting Aug. 24, members of the Ilwaco City Council asked Mayor Mike Cassinelli to explain why he apparently laid off a city employee and then, after the employee quit soon after coming back to work, rehired him without informing the city council.
Council members say they heard about this from the community.
The mayor also recently canceled a contract that provided city planning services without first consulting the council.
Both of these actions by Cassinelli are troubling to Councilwoman Vinessa Karnofski, who asked that the council touch on the issues. She added two discussion items to the meeting’s agenda: “the duties of the mayor” and “budget shortfalls for staff.”
The issue involving the city employee is especially troubling since it puts city staff and city council in an awkward and vulnerable place, she said later.
A Public Works employee was reportedly given two months off — though, it was not clear if the individual was laid-off, given vacation time or fired, or if he was paid by the city or collected unemployment during this time. Later, the employee allegedly quit, but then was rehired shortly afterwards.
While the mayor is able to lay-off employees, Karnofski said it appears certain procedures were not followed: a personnel committee that would normally be involved in such conversations told her it was not aware of the situation, and the council received no budget amendment to reflect the change in staffing costs.
“I would like the mayor to admit he overstepped his authority on this particular issue and apologize,” Karnofski said in an interview after the meeting ended.
In a phone conversation Aug. 25, city staff said city attorney Heather Reynolds had advised them and Cassinelli not to comment on the matter since it involves personnel issues.
Karnofski opened the discussion at the meeting by asking Cassinelli if the city had a “shortfall in the budget to cover staff this year” making it necessary to lay off an employee.
“No,” Cassinelli said.
She asked if there was a lack of work for staff this year.
Cassinelli said it was up to “the superintendent” to allow time off but did not clarify further.
“If the staff is let go, it has to be for lack of funds,” said Councilman Fred Marshall, who said this was a council issue since the council had approved and appropriated the funds for the employee’s position during budget talks last year, and had not approved any changes to that original plan since.
“I think there’s plenty of work,” Karnofski said. “I don’t understand. And I feel that it’s inappropriate.”
Councilman Gary Forner asked if the employee had submitted a letter asking to be laid off or if he communicated this request verbally. Cassinelli said it was a verbal request.
Karnofski then asked: If the employee did indeed quit later, soon after returning to work after the lay-off, did the city go through due process — posting the job, accepting resumes and conducting interviews with multiple candidates — to fill the position?
Casinelli said, “Mmmhmm.”
“So did we do due process?” Karnofski asked again.
“Yes,” the mayor said.
She pressed: The city interviewed multiple people?
Cassinelli replied that the city had accepted resumes.
Karnofski said she’d heard the employee had quit and was rehired within two days. Cassinelli denied this.
“Mr. Mayor I think we’re having a public discussion on a specific individual who has remained unnamed but I think this is an executive session,” Councilman Jon Chambereau interjected, who said he was uncomfortable with discussing personnel issues in public session. “…I think we should not talk anymore about this until we speak to the attorneys.”
The council decided to wait and schedule an executive session with their attorney for a later date. Executive sessions are closed to the public and the media.
After the meeting, Karnofski and Councilman David Jensen said it’s not clear if Cassinelli thought he was acting within the bounds of his role as mayor or if he ignored the procedures put in place when it came to laying off and rehiring the employee. The contract with this particular employee was one the council had approved when he was first hired.
“We have certain procedures like the personnel committee and budget amendments that we didn’t go through,” Karnofski said. “So it doesn’t seem...upright.”
During the discussion time at the meeting, the council also talked about the duties of the mayor.
An item briefing Karnofski passed around at the start of the meeting, explained why the issue was before the council: “Council must approve all contracts which the mayor enters into on behalf of the city, however it is not clear if the council must approve the termination of such a contract prior to the mayor taking termination action.”
Though not explicitly stated during the meeting, the reason for the discussion revolved around the recent canceling of a contract with the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce (CREST) for city planning services. Cassinelli had canceled this contract, which brought in CREST employee Ryan Crater as Ilwaco’s city planner, without telling or consulting with any of the council members beforehand.
The council and Cassinelli plan to discuss the roles of both the mayor and the council at a workshop next month. The descriptions for these roles are vague and, in places, outdated, council members say.