Charges whirl into recall vote for South End sewer district

There's a lot of fuss swirling around the Southwest Suburban Sewer District, a place where the issues are supposed to be sludge, compost and sturdy pipes, but lately have been strikingly dirtier.

Talk of lawsuits, payouts, demotions and allegations of racial discrimination have overwhelmed the little sewer district that sweeps south from the edge of Seattle down to Des Moines. More than 5,000 people have signed petitions to recall one of the three elected sewer commissioners.

The nearly 27,000 voters in the district have until Tuesday's election to decide whether Mike Colasurdo, a 74-year-old retired math and shop teacher, is a racially insensitive micromanager, as his opponents contend, or, as he puts it, someone who "took nothing on faith and looked to save money in places no one was looking."

Colasurdo says this effort to remove him from office two years before his six-year term expires amounts to a case of revenge and a desire by some to maintain a system he says had been run on favoritism and an overly fat payroll.

"I looked out sincerely and honestly for the ratepayers. I don't know what else to say." He calls the charge of racial discrimination hurtful and untrue. "They've smeared my name," he said.

Central to the recall advocates' case is the amount of money paid to settle with sewer-district employees whose jobs were cut or changed as part of a Colasurdo-endorsed restructuring effort, or who allege they were mistreated or wrongly terminated.

Ratepayers for Recall, which expects to spend up to $3,500 on the campaign, says needed workers were cut, and cut in a way that hurt morale and cost the ratepayers dearly.

Since 2000, when Colasurdo joined his longtime friend John Jovanovich on the commission to form a 2-1 majority on many issues, two general managers have been let go.

For one, the settlement and buyout of his contract cost the district $472,000, according to current General Manager Donald Baer. The case of the other is being discussed by lawyers, Baer said.

Another employee, a superintendent whose job was eliminated, got $146,000 "on the advice of attorneys," said Jovanovich, who was defeated in his bid for re-election in November.

Two other departing employees, including one whose charge of racial discrimination resulted in a claim with the Washington Human Rights Commission, also received payments. Together, they got at least $100,000, plus compensation for vacation and sick leave, Baer, Colasurdo and Jovanovich estimated.

Despite the settlements, Colasurdo and Jovanovich say the district is saving money by reducing the staff by eight employees or so to about 20 total.

Bonnie Liebel, an advocate of the recall, said, "Any business that has this much going on, you wonder how business can be conducted."

The recall effort was started by Stan Carey, a seafood wholesaler who left the sewer commission just as Colasurdo's term began. Carey, who accuses Colasurdo of doing "serious wrong," brought the case to Superior Court.

King County Superior Court Judge James Doerty reviewed Carey's six allegations and concluded two were "factually and legally sufficient" to allow a signature-gathering drive for a recall. One stemmed from the racial-discrimination complaint to the state Human Rights Commission, the other from an allegation that Colasurdo and Jovanovich met in violation of the state's open-meetings law.

Doerty dismissed, for purposes of setting a recall in motion, allegations of wrongful termination of a district employee, sexual discrimination against another and an effort to spy on workers.

Colasurdo, who pleads his case in a $699 ad in a local newspaper, says one accusation that he used racially insensitive language with an employee did not take into account the context of the conversation, which he said was his service during the Korean War.

As for the complaint that he violated the state's open-meetings act, he and Jovanovich say they have been friends since high school and still go on camping trips together. Colasurdo says they see each other often outside of commission meetings but not to discuss business.

Bottom line, says Colasurdo, he and Jovanovich are ordinary men who made waves by trying to cut costs.

"If we're marked men, I guess, so be it," he said. "They got him in November. But I'm not counting myself out yet."

One thing there's no dispute about is the sewer district's rates, which are among the lowest in the state.

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or

The rare recall

Successful recalls are unusual in Washington.

A fire-district commissioner was recalled last year in Pierce County, but a few other recent recall efforts failed, including an attempt last year to oust the mayor of Raymond in Pacific County.

In 1975, then-Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman survived a recall.

In 1981, Pete von Reichbauer, now a Republican member of the Metropolitan King County Council from Federal Way, survived a recall when he was in the state Senate.

The Southwest Suburban Sewer District runs two treatment plants and has an annual budget of about $4.5 million. It takes in part of South Seattle, most of Burien, White Center, part of Normandy Park and a small northern section of Des Moines.