Longview City Councilman Mike Wallin doesn’t shy away from confrontation.
He once publicly called for the city public works director to be fired over the city’s water controversy.
He took to Facebook to sharply criticize the city traffic engineer’s job performance, which prompted him to leave the city.
He has openly called the City Public Works Department corrupt.
And his frequent requests for sidewalk repairs have led to accusations of cronyism, which he denies.
His detractors say his abrasive style has contributed to a “strained” relationship between the City Council and city staff and is driving away good, veteran employees.
But Wallin said he sees himself as a guardian for the taxpayers and ratepayers. His approach may ruffle feathers, but as a councilman he says “it’s game on” to make the city run as efficiently as possible.
“I’m different from some of these other politicians,” Wallin said in an interview Tuesday. “If people ask me questions or they want to know why something happened or why something works a certain way, I’m going to answer it. I feel I owe it to the residents that I’m as direct as possible with them.”
However, four current and former city employees told The Daily News on the record that Wallin’s persistent questioning can feel like he doesn’t trust them to do their jobs. Many others made similar complaints but did not want their names used.
“Council’s actions are frequently interpreted by staff that council doesn’t trust staff to be doing the right thing,” Public Works Director Jeff Cameron said Monday. “That kind of attitude doesn’t bode well for staff that are very dedicated to their job and are dedicated to looking out for the best interest of the city.”
Retired Trans-Alta power-plant project manager John Melink told TDN that he decided to run against Wallin this fall because he heard from employees that Wallin was “micromanaging” them instead of letting the city manager direct staff.
“I admit, I’ve been pretty critical of staff,” Wallin said. “We’ve had some disastrous decisions by council and by staff in the previous history, and we are inundated all the time by residents asking (us questions).”
Wallin is adamant that he respects the chain of command — which requires him to file complaints through the City Manager’s Office — and dismissed the timing of the complaints as election-season “dirty politics.”
He speaks up when he sees problems, he said, and frequently posts these questions and critiques on his official Facebook page along with information about city business, events and policies. Social media is one way he can inform constituents, he said.
To some city officials, however, the posts can feel like personal attacks about their job performance.
Former Traffic Engineer Manuel Abarca said he left the city in March after Wallin criticized his job performance on Facebook and he heard that the council had threatened to cut his position.
“I was hoping to finish out my career with the City of Longview. I’m in my 50s and I planned probably to work there until I was in my 60s, maybe even 70s, if mentally I was all there,” he said.
Then, ahead of a City Council meeting in January, Wallin posted on his Facebook page that “We are thankful that now — after years on the job and the persistent urging by Council that he show up for work and perform some actual traffic improvements — traffic Engineer Abarca finally shows some interest in getting some improvements made.”
“When you see something like that, it’s a slap in the face and a kick in the stomach,” Abarca said. “It’s not recognizing what we do and why we have to do it.”
In February, Abarca said he started hearing coworkers openly talking about how the council wanted to cut his position, so he left. He now works as the Olympic Region Traffic Design Engineer for the state Department of Transportation.
“The whole Southwest Washington area is pretty close-knit. People know each other,” Abarca said. “When you have a council that I consider out of control, people don’t want to work for that agency.”
Public-works employee exodus
In the past two years, 29 non-seasonal employees have resigned from the City of Longview, not including terminations or retirements, according to official records.
Longview Human Resources Director Chris Smith said the average annual turnover rate of Longview employees over the past decade is a little more than 6%. The national average employment turnover is 15%, he said.
About 12% of Longview’s current employees have been with the city for 25 years or more, according to city records. And almost a quarter of the employees have been with the city for 20 years or more, Smith said.
While overall city turnover has remained fairly steady over the past decade, 11 of the people who left in the last two years had been in the Public Works Department — including engineers Amy Blain, Sam Barham and Tom Gorman and Engineering Manager Craig Bozarth, who was Cameron’s heir apparent as director. (Blain and Barham both left last summer but are still on the city payroll as temporary employees while they finish projects.) Blain, Bozarth and Barham all declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
Eleven resignations in two years may not seem like a lot, but Cameron said his department has historically had low turnover, with one or two resignations annually.
“That’s one department that absolutely is under extreme scrutiny by our residents. More than anything else, people drink their water and have an issue with it, and people drive on our roads and have an issue with them,” Wallin said.
From the beginning of Wallin’s tenure on the council in 2012, Cameron has become a lightning rod for the city’s infrastructure frustrations. Shortly after Longview switched its water supply from the Cowlitz River to a groundwater supply at the Mint Farm Industrial Park in January 2013, Wallin posted to his Facebook page that Cameron should be fired. (Cameron oversaw an extensive analysis of water supply options the council used to make its decision.)
Wallin says he was outspoken against the decision when a previous council voted for the switch, which resulted in years of water quality problems and expensive fixes.
The Facebook post about Cameron appears to have been deleted, and Wallin said he didn’t remember posting it, but multiple former and current city employees referenced the post in interviews.
“I may have said something or posted something like that,” Wallin acknowledged. “I’ve been very critical of Jeff Cameron … and very public about it. But I’ve also supported him.”
However, multiple former employees said the Facebook post upset them.
“I was furious because if he could say that about Jeff, he could say that about any of us — myself or my staff,” former Longview Utility Manager Jeff Coleman said in a recent interview.
Coleman was with the City of Longview for 21 years before he resigned in September 2017 over frustrations with the council. He now works for the City of Olympia as the drinking water operations supervisor.
After a more recent exchange in February, Wallin accused the Public Works Department of corrupting the bidding process for a contract to replace a box culvert along Beech Street. He pointedly questioned Cameron’s recommendation to reject the lowest bidder over contractor qualification rules that Cameron argued were standard procedure, but Wallin saw as favoritism. The council threw out all the bids and readvertised the project as a result.
On Facebook, Wallin wrote that “the public works bidding process was unfairly corrupted and altered by public works staff. We don’t know for what motivation or by who. ... The public trust has been violated. Again.”
The city received complaints from the Lower Columbia Contractors Association over the bidding process, but Cameron maintains that the city didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.
“A councilmember who doesn’t know the bidding process is accusing staff who does it routinely of corrupting the process, and I disagree with that vehemently,” Cameron said in an interview last week.
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The second time around, the city only received one bid for the project, which was almost $500,000 higher than the original bid. The council rejected all the bids again and temporarily abandoned the project.
The council’s actions prompted contractor Advanced Excavating Specialists, after operating in Longview for a decade, to move to Kelso.
“The council’s ill-advised rejection of all the bids and rejection of the project over the long haul will cause us contracting difficulties,” Cameron said. “Agencies get reputations over how they are to work with. When we end up rejecting bids twice on a project, contractors know that.”
An eye out for sidewalks
Wallin’s forceful style has also prompted whispers of cronyism among some of his detractors. He is known to be “prolific” in his reports of poor sidewalks throughout the city. One city employee said it’s a running joke that if a project gets moved up the priority list, it must be one of Wallin’s real estate properties.
But Wallin says he is “indiscriminate” about the sidewalk problems he reports, often personally inspecting a complaint and then walking the entire block to flag other locations.
Others have worried that Wallin frequently intervenes on behalf of Urban Saloon at 1202 Commerce Ave. because he is friends with the former owner, Shannon Bass. Wallin has sent many emails to city staff about her complaints regarding city permitting, according to records obtained by TDN.
“I don’t know if they are friends, but obviously she has an ear to Mike Wallin,” Coleman said.
Wallin said he eats at Urban Saloon “all the time” with his family and always hears from Bass about how troublesome it is to work with the city, so he passes her complaints on to city staff.
Is Bass his close friend? “We’re friends on Facebook. She’s one of my 1,700 closest friends, or something,” Wallin said. (Bass recently left Urban Saloon for new business ventures and could not be reached for comment.)
In his personal dealings with the city as a real estate broker, Wallin in 2018 left terse voice messages for Utility Systems Manager Brian Steveson and Utility Operations Manager Brian Rickman. When asked to perform water and sewer assessments on his property at 1140 11th Ave., Wallin was “short, inflexible and disrespectful” before abruptly hanging up, according to a report from Rickman obtained by TDN.
“He acted as if we were singling him out,” Steveson said in an email obtained by TDN. “I feel he is using his position within the City to exempt himself from certain procedures.”
But Wallin says there was poor communication from the city about what he needed to do as a private property owner.
“Our residents should be treated like customers, and I was not treated like a customer,” Wallin said.
Relationship between council and staff
Both Wallin and Human Resources Director Smith said the dissatisfaction of former employees surprised them.
“I have no information that would corroborate any of this,” Smith said of staff concerns.
And Wallin said the council has “great” relationships with the city manager and department heads.
But Coleman says the relationship between the council and staff has been deteriorating since former City Manager Bob Gregory stepped down in 2015.
“(Gregory) was a standup guy and I know that he defended us,” Coleman said. “It really did change and get worse once he left.”
When Gregory stepped down as city manager in 2015, the council replaced him with Dave Campbell, who had served as assistant city manager for a decade. Campbell resigned three years later after receiving low performance reviews from the council.
Finance Director Kurt Sacha was appointed to replace Campbell last year. Sacha has been with the city for more than four decades.
“I’m not going to say it’s Kurt’s fault. And it’s not Dave Campbell’s fault,” Coleman said. “When something happens with the city like what’s happening now, it falls on the City Council.”
Sacha told TDN that there have been times when employees told him that they felt like Wallin “had overstepped his bounds.” But he says there is a long-standing open-door policy between the council and staff to discuss issues and ask questions.
“There’s a difference between ... having a conversation with staff and directing staff,” he said. “Therein lies the difference.”
Mayor Don Jensen said he didn’t think Wallin went too far in his criticism of city staff.
“The citizens want us to not just sit on our hands but to ask those hard questions that they are sitting at home watching (the council meeting) or sitting in the audience saying ‘that’s what I was wondering too.’ Sometimes it may look like it’s pretty hard questions, but that’s why we’re there,” Jensen said.
The last time the city conducted a survey of employee satisfaction was in 2008, Smith said. Wallin said he liked the idea of conducting another survey but said he wished more people would talk to him directly about their concerns.
The reason these concerns are coming up now, Wallin said, is because the election season is ramping up.
His challenger, Melink, has never held public office but is married to Mary Jane Melink, who was Wallin’s colleague on the council until 2017 when she decided not to run again. She had served on the council 12 years. Melink said his wife had a good relationship with Wallin of mutual respect.
However, in Tuesday’s interview Wallin called her a “rubber stamper” for council, and said her husband would be the same.
“She brought us the disastrous decision on the water,” he said. “She never asked a tough question. She never spoke up for residents. We won’t get anything different from him.”
Melink called Wallin’s comments “disappointing” and “uninformed,” and said he was proud of his wife’s service.
“I got into this election to ensure that voters have a choice. As such it’s really about Councilman Wallin’s record and his actions as an elected official,” he said.
Traffic Engineer Abarca said the relationship between the council and staff is important because the council sets the tone for how the city operates.
“If people want status quo and want it to continue the way it is and continue to have people jump ship and not have people want to come to the city, then they should keep voting for people of the same mind. If they want a change, they need to voice their opinion at the ballot box,” he said.
Wallin says the complaints are “distractions” and said he’d rather have the political race focus on policies and the budget.
“It’s easy to fly under the radar and not get much done, but we are trying to improve our city and it does require that we speak up,” Wallin said. “It requires we have some changes.”
“The whole Southwest Washington area is pretty close-knit. People know each other. When you have a council that I consider out of control, people don’t want to work for that agency.” — Former city traffic engineer Manuel Abarca
“It’s easy to fly under the radar and not get much done, but we are trying to improve our city and it does require that we speak up. It requires we have some changes.” — Mike Wallin
“Council’s actions are frequently interpreted by staff that council doesn’t trust staff to be doing the right thing. That kind of attitude doesn’t bode well ....” — Jeff Cameron, public-works director