Watchdog hopes letter will show why Dolan left

Geoff Dolan
Former city manager Geoff Dolan.
Geoff Dolan

Former city manager Geoff Dolan.

A watchdog group suing the City of Manhattan Beach over its handling of former city manager Geoff Dolan’s departure more than a year ago hopes that a March trial will once and for all provide residents with long-awaited answers into an issue that the city has remained largely silent about.

Californians Aware – a nonprofit government watchdog group — filed a lawsuit against the city last April, claiming it violated the Brown Act by not publicly noticing a Dec. 12 closed session City Council meeting at which Dolan’s departure was decided and Community Development Director Richard Thompson was appointed.

The organization also claims the city unlawfully sealed documents associated with Dolan’s exit, including his resignation and release agreement, which was recently made public and obtained by the Easy Reader after a Jan. 18 hearing at a Los Angeles Superior Court. Californians Aware director Richard McKee is still fighting to get a copy of a so-called anonymous letter that allegedly led to a city investigation into Dolan’s work conduct prior to his departure.

“We knew something was wrong there,” said McKee, a part-time chemistry professor at Pasadena City College. “In California, these kinds of settlement agreements are unquestionably public documents. When the city attorney said he couldn’t give it to us, I knew inside that something was wrong. I thought, ‘This can’t be.’”

City Attorney Robert Wadden said that the release agreement has been made public and that other documents, such as the anonymous letter, remain sealed to protect employee’s privacy and the city’s liability during litigation.

“We haven’t seen the letter because they have been violating the law,” McKee said.

McKee also questioned a severance payment of $268,384 outlined in Dolan’s release agreement, since city officials last year claimed Dolan would receive $195,000 in severance pay. City Finance Director Bruce Moe said that roughly $75,000 of the total payment to Dolan for accrued vacation time is “due to any employee upon separation by state law” and that the original severance package was defined as that which Dolan was due by the terms of his contract.

“It does make sense but why doesn’t it specify this pay out in the severance package?” McKee said.

Moe said, in hindsight, the accrued vacation should have been explained.

Since Dolan’s abrupt departure in Dec. 2009 after 15 years with the city, residents have questioned the legitimacy of his $195,000 severance package – to have been issued only in the event of his “involuntary separation” per his contract — while a tight-lipped City Council continually maintained that he resigned and that the separation was mutual.

“It’s been over a year and the residents still don’t know why Geoff Dolan is not longer the city manager of Manhattan Beach,” said resident Robert Bush at a Tuesday City Council meeting.

“We followed exactly the direction the city attorney gave us and still are following it to this day,” said Mayor Richard Montgomery in an interview. “We believe the city will be supported by the courts.”

McKee said he became concerned after noticing several“anticipated litigations” listed on closed session City Council agendas and minutes in the months leading up to Dolan’s departure. He claims that he was told by the city that the litigious threats were based on two anonymous complaints and that he was denied a copy of the complaints. He also claims that Wadden said one of the complaints was made by a city employee and therefore could not be made public, due to personnel issues.

Wadden said he never made such statements to McKee, but that the city did have concerns about potential liabilities from other employees.

McKee also claims that the Saturday, Dec. 12 closed session meeting was deliberately kept secret and that the public was not properly noticed.

“It struck me as an odd thing to happen for a public agency to hold on a Saturday or Sunday,” McKee said. “There was never any exposure of anything,” McKee said.

Wadden claims that the public was properly noticed with flyers at sites around the city, but that he is unsure of whether it was noticed in the Internet.

“It’s always difficult to get the entire council together,” Wadden said. “It was their request to get together on a Saturday. It was a closed session so it wouldn’t have been open to the public anyway.”

McKee also filed charges against the city for charging 40 cents per copy for public records requests, claiming the price to be exorbitant. He said the city has withheld a study it claims supports the cost, which by law is only allowed to include cost recovery fees and compensation for employee time.

Wadden said that the study is available as public record and that McKee has never requested a copy of it.

The City Council continued to cite the protection of city employees’ privacy as its reason for not divulging more information to two residents who questioned the legitimacy of Dolan’s severance package at Tuesday night’s meeting and called the council “corrupt.”

“We are obliged by law to protect our employee’s privacy,” Wadden said.

“Last I checked, that doesn’t make us corrupt,” Councilmember Nick Tell added.

McKee said that he expects the anonymous letter will be made public at a final hearing in March unless the judge decides there is an “overriding interest that overcomes the right of public access to the record.”

“We want to say more, but obviously we can’t,” Montgomery said. “Once the court dates are over, we will be completely free to say what we want. We look forward to our day in court.”

The final hearing for the case will be held on March 22 at 9:30 a.m. at the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse, 111 N. Hill St. in Los Angeles. ER

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