Atherton: Judge blocks release of report on ex-finance director | November 14, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - November 14, 2007

Atherton: Judge blocks release of report on ex-finance director

by Andrea Gemmet

The interested, the affected and the merely curious are going to have to wait until the end of November to find out if an investigator's report on Atherton's ex-finance director, John Johns, will be released to the public.

Interim City Manager Wende Protzman fired Mr. Johns on Oct. 29 without stating the reason for his termination.

Mr. Johns, an employee with the town since 2001, was suspended over a hostile workplace complaint on Aug. 29, while an investigation was conducted. The investigation was concluded on Oct. 25.

On Tuesday, Nov. 6, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Robert Foiles granted Mr. Johns a temporary restraining order blocking the release of the 35-page report by attorney Mary Topliff, the investigator hired by the town.

The complaint filed with the court calls Ms. Topliff's report "one-sided, inaccurate, incomplete and misleading." Mr. Johns said that the report contains "material misstatements of fact and omissions" and said that he was forced to act to protect his family's financial interests and his own professional reputation.

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.

Last week he filed a wrongful termination complaint with the town and is seeking $500,000 in damages.

Attorneys for Mr. Johns and the town of Atherton will be back in court on Friday, Nov. 30, to argue over whether a preliminary injunction should be granted to prevent the report's disclosure.

The Almanac submitted a public records act request for a copy of the investigator's report on Mr. Johns, as well as the report from an investigation conducted last year of former Building Official Mike Hood.

The judge's decision also may hold up the release of the investigator's report on Mr. Hood, said Atherton City Attorney Marc Hynes.

"It's not covered by the court order, but it's tied in with the proceedings, so I don't know yet (whether the Hood report can be released)," Mr. Hynes said.

Almanac publisher Tom Gibboney said the newspaper should have been involved in the hearing on the temporary restraining order.

"The Almanac has not yet decided whether we will intervene in the case," Mr. Gibboney said. "We have standing in the case because it's our public records act request."

Jim Ewert, an authority on public records law who serves as legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the public's interest in the release of the investigator's report has to be considered by the court.

A recent state Supreme Court decision clearly shows that public employees do not have a reasonable expectation of a right to privacy, Mr. Ewert said.

The fact that Atherton officials had intended to release the report on Mr. Johns is a dramatic change from last year, when even City Council members had to fight to get access to an investigation into the conduct of building department staff.

Mr. Hynes told the Almanac that recent judicial decisions paved the way for public disclosure of reports on management employees such as Mr. Johns and Mr. Hood, but not of rank-and-file employees.

When asked whether council members have seen the report on Mr. Johns, Mr. Hynes said he could not answer the question.


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