Town officials were poised to release this week a private investigator's report on allegations that Mr. Johns created a hostile work environment.
Mr. Johns is seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the release of a redacted version of the report to reporters who filed a public records act request for the document. A hearing is set in San Mateo County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 6.
"I'm greatly concerned about material misstatements of fact and omissions within the report," Mr. Johns told the Almanac on Friday, Nov. 2. "That's why I retained legal counsel. I'd very much like to depart the town on amicable terms, but I have to look after my family's financial interests and my professional reputation."
Interim City Manager Wende Protzman said she could not comment, other than to say that Mr. Johns no longer works for the town.
Mr. Johns, the town's finance director since 2001, was put on paid administrative leave Aug. 29 after the town received complaints against him, including one from the Atherton Police Department.
Last week, he said he received a letter on Oct. 29 saying that he had been "released" from his employment with the town. The letter did not tell him why he had been fired, Mr. Johns told the Almanac.
He denied the allegations that he created a hostile work environment, and said he himself has been the victim of retaliation over his work to uncover improprieties in the building department and with employee expense accounts, including in the police department.
Sam Goodman, chair of the Atherton Audit Committee, continues to be a staunch supporter of Mr. Johns, calling Mr. John's treatment by the town "a travesty," and pointing to the improvement in Atherton's finances and annual audits during Mr. Johns' tenure as proof.
"The audit committee took a unanimous stand in praise of Mr. Johns' performance over the last six years, and that appraisal hasn't changed," Mr. Goodman told the Almanac.
Mr. Goodman said he believes investigator Mary Topliff was charged with digging up dirt on Mr. Johns, rather than impartially investigating the hostile work environment charges. He said he knew of several members of the audit committee, both past and present, who are willing to contribute to a legal defense fund if Mr. Johns decides to sue the town for violating its whistleblower protection law.
Mr. Johns conducted a three-phase audit of the Atherton Building Department last year, resulting in a restructuring of that department after the retirement of Building Official Mike Hood. The scrutiny and resulting upheaval generated a great deal of outrage among frequent users of the building department, including Atherton residents, developers and contractors. As a result of Mr. Johns' audits, the City Council implemented a number of reforms and increased the building department's staff.
"I know that there were some hard feelings amongst a number of people who are connected with the town as a result of my Phases I, II and III audits of the building department," Mr. Johns said. "However, I am reluctant to speculate as to the extent that such feelings contributed to my departure."
Police ticket Johns
Besides the situation in the building department, it's clear that there is no love lost between Mr. Johns and the town's police chief, Bob Brennan. The two men have differing versions of an incident at town hall that occurred two days after Mr. Johns was suspended.
Mr. Johns says on Aug. 29 he returned the second of two laptops he had access to, after learning that it had been reported stolen in the police blotter.
"In an elevated voice (Chief Brennan) told me that I did not belong on the premises and that I was to leave immediately," Mr. Johns told the Almanac.
Mr. Johns said that Chief Brennan, in the company of three other police officers, instructed him to get into his car, start the engine, stop the engine, and produce his driver's license. Mr. Johns said he was surprised to learn that his license had expired a month before, a slipup he blames on having forgotten to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of his change of address.
Chief Brennan said that Mr. Johns had been told in writing that one of the conditions of his suspension was that he was not allowed to return to the town administrative offices. He said he knew Mr. Johns' license had expired due to a routine background check he conducted when Mr. Johns was suspended.
When Mr. Johns reappeared on town property, Chief Brennan said, he instructed Sgt. Eric Grimm to give Mr. Johns a citation when he got back into his car. He said he did not instruct Mr. Johns to start his engine.
"He did it of his own free will," Chief Brennan said. "He made the decision to drive here in a car without a license, and to get into that car."
The police also wrote up charges against Mr. Johns for trespassing, and sent them to the county District Attorney's Office, Chief Brennan said.
"The lesson here is, if you don't have a license, don't drive a car," he said.
The citation is a fix-it ticket, and Mr. Johns said he renewed his license that same day. However, he said, the incident was an unnecessary show of force by police, and that being told to start his car was either entrapment or unlawful search and seizure.
The report on Mr. Johns by Ms. Topliff, a San Francisco-based attorney who had done previous work for the town, isn't the only investigation that Atherton officials decided to release. Recent judicial decisions have cleared the way for a 2006 investigator's report on former Building Official Mike Hood to be released, said City Attorney Marc Hynes.
Another 2006 report into alleged misconduct by lower-level building department staff will not be released, Mr. Hynes said.
George Camerlengo, Mr. Johns' attorney, is set to appear in court to argue against the release of the report on Mr. Johns.
"We strongly disagree that disclosure of the investigative report is either mandated or permitted under the (public records) act. We believe that any such disclosure will result in irreparable harm to Mr. Johns and impermissibly violate his right to privacy," said Mr. Camerlengo in an e-mail to Atherton officials.
If the report on Mr. Johns is blocked, Mr. Hynes has said he'll seek the judge's guidance on whether to release the report on Mr. Hood.