Current and former members of the Manhattan Beach City Council who were in office when City Manager Geoff Dolan abruptly stepped down in December 2009 have issued a letter to residents explaining why they have been silent for more than a year about the events related to Dolan’s departure.
"In retrospect, we were given legal advice previously that was based on concern for Mr. Dolan's privacy to the detriment of the community's legitimate interest in knowing why we, as a council, made that decision,” the letter states. “We hope that you will forgive us for relying on legal advice that resulted in our silence. We now want to set the record straight."
The legal advice the council members received came from City Attorney Robert Wadden.
The letter comes a week after the city announced it had settled a lawsuit filed in April 2010 by Richard McKee, vice president of the nonprofit government watchdog group Californians Aware. McKee alleged that the City Council violated the Brown Act and California Public Records Act when it held meetings to discuss Dolan’s employment status and appointed an interim city manager without proper notice to the public.
As part of the settlement, the city will reimburse McKee's estimated $70,000 in legal fees; release all public documents related to the case, including an anonymous letter that moved the council to make decisions on Dolan's employment (attached as PDFs); require some city staff to be trained on the California Public Records Act within 90 days; and require training on the Brown Act—the state's open-meeting law—within six months for individuals serving on the City Council and city boards and commissions.
The letter issued Tuesday was signed by the five council members who were on the City Council when Dolan's separation took effect: current members Richard Montgomery, Nick Tell and Wayne Powell and former members Mitch Ward and Portia Cohen, whose terms ended March 15.
"In November 2009,” their letter states, “the city of Manhattan Beach received an anonymous letter accusing Mr. Dolan of certain improper actions. In our role as employer, we began an investigation and sought advice from a labor lawyer. During that process, however, the Council's discussion broadened to include whether the city would benefit from new leadership after 15 years"—the length of time Dolan had been employed by the city.
"Based on legal advice,” the letter continues, “Council entered into a separation agreement as the best way to accomplish [Dolan's] separation from the city."
Wadden, who had been advising the City Council after the anonymous letter surfaced, was replaced in that role about three weeks ago by attorney Christi Hogin of the law firm Jenkins & Hogin LLP. Hogin represented the city in the settlement.
“It’s always better to tell more,” Hogin told Manhattan Beach Patch.
Kelly Aviles, McKee's attorney, said she was pleased that the city sought a second opinion.
"If you don't get the right advice, you're at a disadvantage,” Aviles said. “They [City Council members] did the right thing by getting a second opinion.
"The City Council had courage. Once they became aware of what they'd done and how they'd violated the law, they really did the right thing,” she said.
Aviles said that as part of the settlement, McKee, a retired Pasadena City College professor, agreed to give up his request that the city rescind the severance agreement it made with Dolan in December 2009, which included a payment of $195,000, equal to six months of Dolan’s salary.
Aviles said she'd heard from a large number of Manhattan Beach residents during the litigation.
"I think that it's great when people actually get involved,” she said. “You need to stay on top of it so that these types of situations don't occur."