The Vashon Park District’s five-member board officially fired Jan Milligan, the agency’s executive director for the past 10 months, at a brief public meeting Wednesday night, three days after she was asked to tender her resignation.
The public meeting, as well as emerging details around her dismissal, touched off strong feelings in the community, raised questions about the board’s behind-closed-doors decision to let her go and fanned concerns about the financial state of the small park district.
Financial statements issued at a board meeting two weeks ago show the agency has sufficient cash in the bank to pay its current bills but is holding a negative fund balance of $720,000 — liabilities due in large part to the agency’s efforts to complete a multi-million-dollar sports fields project.
Four of the park district’s commissioners — Chair Bill Ameling, David Hackett, Michael DeBlasi and Joe Wald — voted at last week’s public meeting to terminate Milligan. Lu-Ann Branch, another commissioner, abstained, saying after the meeting that she did so “because I didn’t have enough information.”
The meeting, held in a small conference room packed with Islanders, was tense at times. The meeting’s printed agenda included a line that said “public comment,” but Ameling, as soon as the meeting began, announced he was changing the agenda and the board would not take public comment.
When Janet Quimby called out from the back of the room that she had information she wanted to share with the commissioners before they took action, Ameling said she could submit it later.
“We’re pretty confident of what we’re doing,” he told her.
Ameling then said the board “has had much discussion at several executive sessions about the performance of the executive director.” On Monday of last week, he went on, “I asked her for her resignation. Not receiving one, we are now proceeding to a formal vote.”
Before taking the vote, Hackett briefly praised Milligan, saying, “I believe her heart was in the right place and she worked hard, but it wasn’t the direction the board was looking for, at least this board member.”
No other commissioners commented, and the meeting ended minutes later, stirring frustration among some in attendance. One man, as he stood up to leave the meeting, said loudly, “Well, that’s a farce.” Another suggested the commissioners should be recalled.
Others, meanwhile, said they believe the commissioners violated the state’s open public meetings law when they met in executive session two weeks ago and reached what Ameling called “a consensus” that it was time for Milligan “to try something different,” as he told The Beachcomber last week.
Quimby, formerly the director of contracts and risk management at the Port of Tacoma, said she was trying to alert the commissioners to what she saw as a violation of the state’s far-reaching open meetings law when she asked to speak at Wednesday’s meeting. The board members were voting to “ratify recent personnel changes,” according to their agenda. But according to Quimby, who worked on such issues for the Port of Tacoma, “ratifying at a public meeting does not cure the violation.”
“I wanted to alert them to the difficulties I saw with how they were proceeding,” she said. “Hopefully, they would stop, step back and review the whole thing with their counsel. Now, they’ve got a potential wrongful termination claim and a violation of the public meetings act. I think it hurts all of us moving forward.”
Hackett, a deputy prosecutor for King County, said he believes the board’s actions fully complied with the state’s open public meetings law. Hackett noted that no “final action” was taken, operative words in the public meetings act. “You can make some basic decisions in an executive session. You don’t vote. You don’t make a decision that’s binding on anything.”
Ameling, too, said he believed they were in compliance with the law. “I think a decision is when you take a vote and raise your hands,” he said, noting that no actual votes were taken in executive session.
“We reached a consensus. Nobody was happy with her,” he said. People are “parsing words” if they take issue with the board on this matter, he added. “Is someone going to try to prove an illegal meeting? They weren’t there. Who’s going to argue about it? And what difference does it make, anyway? It came to the point where the board was upset, and she was gone.”
But Tim Ford, an assistant attorney general and the state’s open government ombudsman, said “final action” does not have to include a formal vote and that reaching a consensus behind closed doors can also amount to a violation of the open public meetings act.
“If they made a collective decision, even if they didn’t vote, that should have been done in an open public meeting,” he said. “There’s no authority to make those decisions in executive session.”
Other Islanders, meanwhile, have come to Milligan’s defense in the days following her termination. At the Vashon Rotary Club’s meeting Friday, George Butler stood up and gave an impassioned speech on Milligan’s behalf.
“The board’s action is inconsistent with everything I know and everything I’ve personally experienced with Jan,” he said Friday, after the Rotary’s meeting.
“I’m not declaring warfare,” he added. “But I think there are some real trust issues about the actions taken by the board.”
Jason Everett, who worked with Milligan when he headed Vashon Allied Arts, said he, too, was troubled by the board’s decision to terminate her. “I’ve worked with Jan Milligan for 15 years, and I know her to be a very competent administrator and capable of what needed to be done at the park district,” he said.
Of the four commissioners who voted for Milligan’s dismissal, three wouldn’t comment on why they cast their votes the way they did; the fourth, Wald, did not return phone calls.
“It’s a personnel issue. We really can’t discuss it,” said DeBlasi.
“The director serves at the pleasure of the board,” Ameling said. “And the board was not happy with her performance. … We’re in a difficult time. And she wasn’t grasping what was needed, what was being asked.”
Milligan, reached at home Monday, said she worked long hours to try to get the park district on a path toward financial health, a path, she added, that was beginning to emerge. “I’m devastated on a personal level,” she said of her termination. “And I’m very worried about the park district’s future, particularly financially.”
The park district’s financial picture was made clearer at its most recent regular board meeting, when Marie Browne, the district’s part-time accountant, issued a balance sheet that showed the district has a negative equity of $720,119. Negative equity is an accounting term often used in the real estate market; like being “under water,” it means the liabilities are greater than the assets.
Browne said the park district “isn’t on the verge of collapse.” At the same time, she added, “That’s a big hole.”
Ameling, a former CPA who has been on the park board for 28 years, agreed that the district is in a financial hole. But the district has already made financial and personnel changes that Ameling said will enable the district to get back on track. “It’s survivable. … We’re going to come out of this much more healthy,” he said.
As for the concerns raised about the park district’s actions, Ameling called it “a tempest in a teapot” that will fade over time.
“We’ll weather it,” he said. “Most people on the Island don’t know what’s going, and they don’t care.”