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Watchdog Group's Suit Says City Violated Brown Act

Californians Aware says the secrecy surrounding former City Manager Geoff Dolan's departure and severance was unlawful.

A local watchdog group filed a lawsuit last week alleging that the city of Manhattan Beach didn't give proper public notice of its intention to discuss former City Manager Geoff Dolan's resignation and $195,000 severance package.

According to the suit filed by Californians Aware, the council accepted Dolan's resignation and agreed to the severance at a closed meeting in December, a day before Dolan announced that he would be stepping down.

That's illegal under the state's Brown Act, which stipulates that city councils may not take action in secret and must post an agenda even for closed meetings, Californians Aware said in its suit.

"No one knows what the real deal was, whether he resigned or was terminated or resigned because he was terminated," said Richard McKee, a Pasadena City College professor and vice president of the group.

The council agreed to pay Dolan under advisement from City Attorney Robert Wadden, according to Mayor Pro Tem Richard Montgomery. The decision raised some eyebrows, however, as the agreement was reached while Manhattan Beach was facing a $4-million deficit.

Under Dolan's contract, if he were to be let go he would be eligible for up to six months of his salary, which is what he received. The contract did not obligate the council to offer him any money if he resigned.

At the time, Councilman Wayne Powell told LA Weekly that the decision was made to stave off a drawn-out court battle, which the city feared would cost more than the $194,640 severance package.

McKee isn't buying that argument.

"If the council was concerned about the city manager, there should have been closed sessions to discuss," said McKee, who noted that there was no mention of any problems in any Manhattan Beach council agendas leading up to Dolan's departure.

If the city agrees that it acted inappropriately, it has the opportunity to revisit its decision under the Brown Act. However, Wadden has told other media outlets that he believes the council was correct in its actions.

Wadden couldn't be reached for comment for this story.

The city's next step is to answer the suit petition, affirming or disputing Californians Aware's facts. McKee, who has filed 26 other Brown Act lawsuits (and won 21 of them), said it will take about three months to get to a hearing.

"It's a personnel issue," Montgomery said. "Council is guided by the city attorney—we follow his advice."

McKee was skeptical. "It may be that this council really believes in their city attorney, and with the city attorney giving them this advice, they think they will be OK," he said. "We are going to show them that they aren't."

If the Los Angeles County Superior Court does nullify the city's actions, Manhattan Beach will have to pay Californians Aware's legal fees, which McKee estimated would be $30,000 to $35,000. The city would then be forced to revisit its original decision. If the city were to rescind the severance package, Dolan could sue for breach of contract.

Dolan served as city manager for 15 years. The city had given him an annually renewing contract through January 2016, and he was paid an annual salary of $257,500 at the time of his departure.

Richard Thompson, Manhattan Beach's community development director, has been serving as interim city manager since Dolan's resignation.

Wadden will brief the council on the case at its next meeting May 4. The session will be closed.

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