Atherton finance chief unfairly targeted, says audit panel
• John Johns is placed on paid leave.
All is not well in the town of Atherton. Finance Director John Johns was suspended Aug. 27, following a complaint that he created a "hostile work environment." Town officials say they are following procedure while the complaint is investigated, while Mr. Johns says he's being targeted for digging up financial misdeeds within the town, and says he has evidence that he's been threatened and subject to abusive treatment.
Interim City Manager Wende Protzman confirmed that she placed Mr. Johns on paid administrative leave after receiving a complaint against him. She said she hired San Francisco-based attorney Mary Topliff, who has done previous work for the town, to conduct a personnel investigation.
She would not reveal the source of the complaint or its substance, citing privacy issues. "In a personnel matter, all parties, including John, are protected," Ms. Protzman said. "I hope to have the investigation wrapped up in a couple of weeks."
Mr. Johns said he wasn't aware of any complaints from his staff about his demeanor or behavior.
"I don't think being placed on administrative leave is either necessary or appropriate," Mr. Johns told the Almanac. "It comes at an awkward time. The very day I was placed on administrative leave is the very day auditors arrived to do the yearly (outside) audit."
Both Mr. Johns and Ms. Protzman have said they intend to apply for Atherton's city manager job. The post has been open since city manager Jim Robinson retired at the end of July; recruitment for the job is expected to begin in a month or so.
Mr. Johns' suspension has galvanized the members of the town's audit committee, which is charged with overseeing the town's annual audit, and they remain staunch supporters of Mr. Johns, said committee Chairman Sam Goodman.
The audit committee is made up of council members Jerry Carlson and Kathy McKeithen, and five residents who are appointed by the council. Mr. Carlson and Ms. McKeithen could not be reached for comment.
Shortly before Mr. Johns was suspended, the Atherton Audit Committee drafted a letter of commendation praising his "exemplary service." Signed by the audit committee's resident members, the letter now includes a protest over the town's treatment of Mr. Johns.
Placing Mr. Johns on administrative leave for creating a hostile work environment "constitutes an unacceptable rebuff," according to the letter to town officials. The letter also demands private access to the town's investigator and reserves the right to bring the matter to the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.
Mr. Goodman said it's Mr. Johns himself who has been the victim of a hostile work environment, stemming from his scrutiny of the building department.
Mr. Johns conducted a three-phase audit of the Atherton Building Department last year, resulting in a restructuring of that department. The upheaval generated a great deal of outrage among frequent users of the building department, including Atherton residents, developers and contractors.
"I believe information is available in the form of e-mail (showing) intimidation attempts by some of the town officials to punish employees who investigate things in town," Mr. Goodman said. "The audit committee is interested only in obtaining facts and a fair resolution. The appearances of intimidation are very strong, and that's something that the audit committee intends to cast some light on."
Mr. Johns said while he was conducting the last phase of the building department audit he was cautioned by a colleague against upsetting powerful people in town.
He also told the Almanac that, on three separate occasions, "I have been made to fear for my personal safety."
Mr. Johns said that his employees in the finance department have been subject to "abusive treatment" by other town employees, and that he can document the incidents, which occurred over the past two years, with e-mail and other correspondence. He said he's turned over the information to Mr. Goodman, and that he plans to provide it to the town's investigator, Ms. Topliff.
"I don't think you should feel the fear of losing your job just for doing your job," Mr. Johns said. "The job of the chief financial officer is not to go along to get along. Chief financial officers occasionally have to question spending practices or perform audits, and that's not always an enjoyable experience."
Councilman Charles Marsala said he supports Ms. Protzman's handling of the matter. "She's in a tough situation and I respect her tremendously for meeting a difficult situation head-on," he said.
Mr. Marsala praised Mr. Johns' handling of financial matters, but criticized his audits of the building department, saying Mr. Johns' findings were presented in an "inflammatory" manner and were inaccurate.
The timing of Mr. Johns' suspension, which coincides with the yearly audit of the town's books by Caporicci & Larson, is raising the suspicions of some residents who closely follow town politics. And, it may prevent the town from getting a clean, "unqualified" audit this year, as it has for the past seven, explained Mr. Goodman.
"Any time the financial officer who prepares the financial statements is impeded, or has a change of status, it must be reported in the audit," he said. "I'm concerned about the town's ability to get a clean opinion."
Mr. Johns said he's been encouraged by the support of the audit committee and the Atherton Civic Interest League, and added that the current turmoil hasn't dissuaded him from pursuing the city manager position.
"I do believe that now is the time for one with courage, integrity and experience to lead the town through this time of recovery," he said. "As the second-longest-serving department head, I also believe that I'm very well qualified for the assignment."
The brouhaha in the finance department spilled over into the police blotter, as well. Mr. Johns said on Monday he was instructed to turn over all town property, including his computer and the key to his office.
That same day, Atherton police began an investigation of a vandalized or broken laptop that was in the finance director's office. Chief Bob Brennan said the investigation is continuing, and there are no suspects yet. "We have a computer forensics expert, and we will have (evidence of data removal) looked at as part of the investigation," he said.
However, there is no investigation into a missing laptop, Chief Brennan said, although the police log cites a "damaged/destroyed laptop and missing laptop."
Mr. Johns said he was surprised to see the investigation listed in the police blotter.
"The town has in their custody the computer I had access to," he said. "One (computer) I know was cannibalized for spare parts and left in my office, if I needed additional spare parts."