Editorial: Atherton pays off another employeeThe 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.