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La Center parts ways with controversial finance director

Council members approve separation agreement for Finance Director Suzanne Levis; Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis remains on personal leave

LA CENTER — Members of the La Center City Council approved a separation agreement with former Finance Director Suzanne Levis last week. In addition to the approval of the separation agreement, the council members accepted a one-sentence letter of resignation submitted by Levis dated May 15.

Levis, who last signed an employment agreement with the city on Jan. 1, 2011 but has been a director in La Center for approximately 16 years, was placed on administrative leave in March of this year after an investigation into her conduct was completed on Feb. 26, 2018.

Former La Center Finance Director Suzanne Levis is shown here at a meeting of the La Center City Council in July 2017. Last week, members of the council approved a separation agreement between the city and Levis. Photo by Mike Schultz
Former La Center Finance Director Suzanne Levis is shown here at a meeting of the La Center City Council in July 2017. Last week, members of the council approved a separation agreement between the city and Levis. Photo by Mike Schultz

The terms of the separation agreement include the payment of Levis’ salary ($9,729 per month) and benefits through the separation date of May 15. In addition to that, Levis will receive six months of separation pay ($58,374) and health insurance premiums ($5,892). The agreement will also allow Levis to seek unemployment benefits.

SEPARATION AGREEMENT
SEPARATION AGREEMENT

The agreement also requires that Levis “releases and forever discharges any and all of the ‘released parties’ from all claims of any kind.’’ The “released parties’’ includes the city of La Center and all of its past and present employees, managers, supervisors, directors, officers, elected officials, representatives, agents, attorneys and others.

When reached by phone, La Center Mayor Greg Thornton would not comment of Levis’ departure.

“It’s still evolving, still more work to do,’’ Thornton told ClarkCountyToday.com.

The departure of Levis may be followed by that of La Center’s other top department head, Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis. Sarvis and Levis have lived together as a couple for many years while serving as the city’s two key department heads. Multiple sources have told ClarkCountyToday.com the two recently were married.

Thornton confirmed what several sources have told ClarkCountyToday.com, that Sarvis is no longer at his job with the city. Sarvis is currently not on administrative leave but is using accrued executive paid time off and vacation time to be away from his job. Thornton wouldn’t comment as to whether Sarvis would return to his job at any point in the future.

La Center Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis is shown here addressing members of the La Center City Council in July 2017. Sarvis currently on personal leave from his position with the city. Photo by Mike Schultz
La Center Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis is shown here addressing members of the La Center City Council in July 2017. Sarvis currently on personal leave from his position with the city. Photo by Mike Schultz

Controversy is not new to Levis and Sarvis in La Center. The two were the central figures in a report written in May 2013 by then-Interim La Center Police Chief Erin Nolan. Nolan’s report included claims by La Center employees that the department heads were responsible for contributing to a hostile workplace. The employees interviewed by Nolan also raised concerns that Levis and Sarvis held an unhealthy influence over then-Mayor Jim Irish.

After several months of public outcry, Irish reversed his position and ordered an investigation by a private investigator from Kirkland, whose report found no conclusions of guilt on the parts of Levis and Irish and the matter was dropped.

For the second time in four years, the city of La Center was forced to conduct an investigation into the conduct of the two. This time, Kenneth Wilson, of Olympia-based Wilson Investigative Services, was chosen to conduct the investigation. Wilson completed his report on Feb. 26, 2018 and his findings included the substantiation of misconduct by Levis.

KENNETH WILSON REPORT
REPORT OF INVESTIGATION

The investigation was initiated as a result of a decision by Thornton in 2016 to seek a Request for Proposal (RFP) as an alternative to the operation of the city’s Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP). Thornton authorized Sarvis to research the best option to move the discussion forward to the members of the La Center City Council.

On Dec. 13, 2016, the mayor signed an agreement with consultant Paul Eisenhardt (of the Eisenhardt Group) to work with the city to prepare a comprehensive RFP and to conduct a review of all responses. Eisenhardt worked with Levis, in addition to Sarvis, and eventually presented the RFP to members of the council on Feb. 13, 2017 and bids were received by private contractors who were seeking to have their bids accepted to operate the WWTP.

On July 26, 2017, members of the council voted 3-2 not to award the contract to any of the bidders, instead leaving its operation to the city of La Center. Wilson’s investigation was to determine what, if any, impact Sarvis and Levis had on the process. Several sources told ClarkCountyToday.com, both then and now, that Sarvis and Levis, were against the mayor’s attempts at a public-private partnership agreement to operate the WWTP.

The specific allegations addressed in the Wilson investigation included the question of whether there was any “misrepresentation and/or falsification of financial data in documents submitted in connection with the WWTP RFP. Wilson’s investigation substantiated that allegation.

Wilson also investigated whether or not there was any “ misrepresentation of information to the union,’’ referring the La Center Exempt Employees Association (LCEEA). Wilson’s finding was that claim was substantiated in part.

Wilson was also asked to determine if Levis and Sarvis were “placing personal interests ahead of professional duties in an attempt to influence council members.’’ His finding was that claim was substantiated in part.

Finally, Wilson was asked to determine if Levis was “being insubordinate to the Mayor in her efforts to negotiate salaries and enter into agreements with the union without the Mayor’s authorization or knowledge.’’ Wilson’s finding was that claim was substantiated.

The city has not announced its intentions to fill either of the department head positions at the time of this report.

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About The Author

Ken Vance, Editor

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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