| The investigator's report that led to Atherton Finance Director John Johns' being fired must be released to the public, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John Runde ruled Friday.
However, Judge Runde granted a 10-day stay of his order in case Mr. Johns chooses to file an appeal. If there is no appeal, the report becomes public on Dec. 10.
Mr. Johns, a town employee since 2001, has called the investigator's report inaccurate, and sought to prevent its release via a preliminary injunction. If made public, the report would harm his reputation and his future employment prospects, he said.
Mr. Johns also filed a wrongful termination claim against the town seeking $500,000 in damages.
Last month, a judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing the report from being released to the Almanac newspaper in response to the Almanac's California Public Records Act request of Oct. 31.
At the hearing on Nov. 30, Judge Runde ruled that a redacted version of the personnel report could be released, but not the exhibits, including 60 pages of pictures, that accompany the report.
The personnel investigation of Mr. Johns, conducted by attorney Mary Topliff, was triggered by a hostile workplace complaint filed by Atherton Police Chief Bob Brennan in May.
Mr. Johns' attorney, George Camerlengo, argued that the investigation report, and Mr. Johns' subsequent firing on Oct. 29, was in retaliation for his work uncovering problems in the Atherton's building department and uncovering "preferential treatment to three of the City Council members, in terms of their building permits."
"This man cleaned up (Atherton's) finances, he tried to clean up the building department, he got the town operating in the black," Mr. Camerlengo said. "He stepped on some toes in the process and now the town is chomping at the bit to release (the report)."
Attorneys for Atherton argued that the public's right to know about the conduct of a public official outweighs any right to privacy Mr. Johns might have.
"Mr. Johns made himself a public figure and waived a reasonable expectation of privacy," said Atherton City Attorney Marc Hynes, citing an Almanac article that quoted Mr. Johns saying that, as Atherton's second-longest serving department head, he was well-qualified for the city manager job.
The City Council is in the midst of interviewing city manager candidates, following the retirement of City Manager Jim Robinson in July.
Atherton co-counsel Louis Leone also argued that because Mr. Johns gave copies of the investigator's report to three people, he effectively published it and made it a public document. Mr. Camerlengo countered that Mr. Johns was seeking the advice of three people involved in the investigation, and that none of them had read the report.
A "friend of the court" letter, filed by the California First Amendment Coalition executive director Peter Scheer, argued that blocking release of the report deprives the town of Atherton from communicating with the public.
"Whatever aspersions (Mr. Johns) may cast on the conduct and motivations of the town only heighten the public concern in the dispute," Mr. Scheer wrote. "Depriving the government of its right to disseminate that information, and the public of its right to seek and obtain it, cannot be justified on the basis of the speculation and conjecture that (Mr. Johns) has offered in support of his request for injunctive relief."
The fact that Atherton officials had intended to release the report on Mr. Johns is a dramatic change from last year, when even City Council members had to fight to get access to a report from an investigation into the conduct of building department staff.
Mr. Hynes told the Almanac that recent judicial decisions paved the way for public disclosure of reports on management employees such as Mr. Johns and former Building Official Mike Hood, but not of rank-and-file employees. A 2006 investigator's report on Mr. Hood should be released in early December, Mr. Hynes said.
Are you receiving Express, our free daily e-mail edition? See a sample and sign-up for Express.