Viewpoint - April 28, 2010

Editorial: Atherton pays off another employee

The lingering legal dispute over whether Atherton had a legitimate reason to terminate finance director John Johns in 2007 finally ended last week on a 3-2 City Council vote that does little to explain the facts of the case.

As the clear winner, Mr. Johns receives $225,000, of which $90,000 is deemed back pay subject to payroll taxes. In addition, Mr. Johns extracted a supposed face-saving commendation that was presented last week, after he was briefly rehired and then immediately resigned, which will show as a resignation, rather than a dismissal, on his record.

In return, Mr. Johns forfeited the right to sue the town and its agents, including Councilman Charles Marsala, who made numerous public statements criticizing Mr. Johns' conduct. But as he pointedly makes clear, Mr. Johns did not give up his right to speak publicly about his experiences, which he has continued to do in public and on The Almanac's Town Square Web site.

Unfortunately, the settlement offers no definitive statement or finding of fact about why the town agreed to pay such a significant sum of money to Mr. Johns in 2010 after its own attorney, brought in specifically to investigate and recommend a course of action on Mr. Johns, advised that he should be let go.

As readers may recall, Mr. Johns was directed by the City Council in 2006 to investigate allegations of improprieties in the building department, including whether employees received gifts or other enticements to issue construction permits that did not fully comply with city code. The investigation was hampered when building department manager Mike Hood suddenly resigned and left the state, although eventually one employee was reassigned to another department.

In his audits, Mr. Johns did find improprieties, and he now claims his exposure of them was the cause of a concerted campaign against him by his enemies in town and on the council, in particular Charles Marsala, to force him from his job.

Mr. Johns claims that evidence dug up by then police chief Bob Brennan, including allegations that he had downloaded pornography on his city-issued laptop computer and acted like a bully in the office, were all faked to build the evidence for his dismissal. No one at the city has bothered to respond to Mr. Johns, and his efforts to get the District Attorney's Office to file charges against the town have been unsuccessful.

Mr. Brennan, who retired as Atherton police chief in 2008, has not commented on the settlement or any other aspects of the case.

Regardless of Mr. Johns' guilt or innocence, his lawsuit was a costly one for the city, which paid out $225,000 to settle the case, but undoubtedly paid much, much more to its own attorneys who worked on the case.

All of this comes about six months after the town paid $230,000 to former police officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley after she charged she was sexually harassed by another employee of the town.

And that is not all. In recent postings on The Almanac's Town Square forum, Mr. Johns has alleged that council member Elizabeth Lewis broke the rules when building a home several years ago. So far, there is no indication that the town or the district attorney are planning to investigate the matter.

Finally, looming on the horizon is another potential large payout if the town loses a federal lawsuit filed by resident Jon Buckheit, who alleges that a town police officer falsified a report filed about his 2008 arrest. Charges were never filed, and the question of the police report's falsification came to light in testimony during a court case in which he won a declaration of factual innocence. If his lawsuit is successful, the town's out of pocket legal expenses in the three cases could easily exceed $1 million.


Posted by Kudos to THE ALMANAC, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Apr 28, 2010 at 12:59 am

Who would have thunk it???

John Johns: This is a good editorial. The Almanac/Tom Gibboney has clearly acknowledged you as the "clear winner". A year ago these words coming out of that mouth would have been inconceivable.

The Almanac has not exactly been "in your corner" during this fight. If anything, I thought they were more advocating Atherton's point of view than yours, and allowing vicious allegations against you to stand in the forums while deleting your own posts on a regular basis.

The Almanac has turned a corner and is now starting to not only report on misdeeds, but actually editorialize on them. I say, "better late than never". I say "come on in, the water's just fine".

I also say, if the Almanac can figure this stuff out, every member of the town council should be able to as well. Moreover, every voter in Atherton should certainly figure it out.

Maybe it took Atherton messing with someone like Buckheit to drive the point home that you weren't an aberration, but rather a horrendous example of abuse of power that perpetuated after you left and reached such a fever pitch that the same bullies thought they could railroad a super wealthy resident and get away with it. Maybe it was your own steely resolve and refusal to back down. Most likely it was simply you were right and they were wrong. People can't be driven out of a job and a reputation for doing their job (auditing the entities they were charged to, no matter how mad it made the people being audited).

It was most likely a combination of all of these things. Mr. Gibboney points out that YOU TURNED DOWN ADDITIONAL MONEY in this settlement (that's the only conclusion one can come to) in order to be able to continue to speak out about your experiences. That makes you a credit to this community.

As for the Town of Atherton, when will it learn? The "old guard" prefers lawsuits like Pilar's, where the plaintiff makes a quick buck, leaves, and no learning takes place. (And, in my view, hers of the three mentioned in this editorial had no merit whatsoever). Be rest assured, Mr. Johns, others have opened their eyes, are opening their eyes, and don't like what they see.

You have been vindicated, no matter how Marsala voted against you and how Lewis refused to vote for you (at that amounts to the same thing).

Please don't go anywhere. This Town needs you as much as society at large needs our history books. It's the best learning that can take place of how to avoid this from happening again.

Posted by John P. Johns, CPA, a resident of another community
on Apr 28, 2010 at 7:46 am

I agree with the sentiment of "Kudos to the Almanac".

During the past 24 months I have been critical, severely so, at times of the Almanac News and of Mr. Gibboney personally. I even threatened to sue this paper for libel.

Mr. Gibboney's editorial came as a most pleasant surprise to me.

Mr. Gibboney has been very perceptive in drawing connections between my experience and the experience of others. He observed a cause and effect relationship that I feared the Almanac was missing. The Pilar Buckley case, my case and Mr. Buckheit's case are symptomatic of the same disease.

Mr. Gibboney got it right. Hats off to Mr. Gibboney.

In is editorial displayed an awareness of a pernicious dynamic in Atherton Town government.

Sadly, poor decisions are being made by inept managers, enabled by self-serving politicians who are aided and abetted by corrupt attorneys. The end result is legal fees and settlements amounting to seven figures.

What will be needed to save Atherton Town government? The answer is simple, a new majority on the City Council. One that does more than speaks platitudes about transparency and efficiency.

Posted by Steve, a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2010 at 9:08 am

In the mean time, Atherton continues to be the butt of a lot of joke and criticism and it will continue until major changes are made.

Posted by laughing, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Apr 29, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Butt of the joke?? But the "fine" police department caught a 59 year old female burglar!! Those are REAL cops!!! LOL!!!

Posted by punch line, a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm

They didn't catch anybody--an observant neighbor made the discovery--the cops managed to scare away the get away car--rediculous

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