News - April 28, 2010

Atherton: Divided council commends fired employee

by Renee Batti

The saga of John Johns vs. the town of Atherton has now ended with a $225,000 pay-out by the town to the former finance director, but the City Council's position on the lawsuit settlement remained divided to the end.

At the April 21 council meeting, the letter of commendation promised in the settlement agreement to Mr. Johns, who was fired from his job in 2007, was approved by a 3-1-1 vote.

Councilman Charles Marsala, who voted against the settlement agreement in a March 29 closed-session meeting, voted against the commendation at last week's public meeting. Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis, who also opposed the settlement agreement, abstained from voting for the letter of commendation, saying she didn't have the "historical knowledge" of Mr. Johns' performance as a staff member because she wasn't on the council when he was employed.

Mr. Johns sued the town for wrongful termination in 2008, charging that his firing was the result of his work in auditing the town's finances and blowing the whistle on fiscal improprieties in the building and other departments. The letter of commendation was a provision of the settlement agreement, as was a condition requiring the town to rehire Mr. Johns and allow him to resign the same day.

Costs to town

The costs to the town to defend against the lawsuit haven't been calculated, although City Manager Jerry Gruber is working to tally the figures, according to Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson.

Mayor Kathy McKeithen, contacted by The Almanac early this week when she was on the East Coast, said that she didn't have her paperwork with her, but her calculations put the costs at "hundreds of thousands of dollars. ... At least approaching $400,000, if not more at this point."

That estimate includes both legal fees and ancillary costs, such as the cost of an investigation of Mr. Johns the council authorized before his firing, she said.

The $225,000 settlement included $90,000 to be considered wages "subject to applicable payroll taxes and withholdings."

The town agreed to rehire Mr. Johns on April 19, although he assumed no active duties and didn't report for work. The brief reinstatement was conditioned on the agreement that Mr. Johns would not "make any claim for any benefits," including wages, worker's compensation, retirement benefits and health and welfare benefits.

A provision of the settlement also prohibits Mr. Johns from suing the town, council members, current and former employees, and contractors. ■ View settlement agreement:


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