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$366K & counting: Browne case a financial nightmare

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POSTED February 16, 2009 4:40 a.m.
When all is said and done, the Matt Browne wrongful-termination case could haunt the collective conscience of Lathrop’s city officials and taxpayers for a long time. Based on preliminary figures plus other anticipated expenses, not to mention related expenses factored into the big picture, a former department head’s courageous act to stand by his unwavering belief that he was unjustly terminated and denied his constitutional rights as a city employee, could end up costing the city a pretty penny - maybe even close to a million dollars.
At a time when the city is financially hurting in the wake of record housing foreclosures and new businesses either crawling at snail’s pace if not nil, that can’t be good news - to put it mildly - to everyone guarding the city coffers.
According to figures obtained from Lathrop City Hall Thursday last week, the still ongoing Browne wrongful-termination case has already cost Lathrop taxpayers $366,561.80.
And that’s just the money that has so far been paid to the legal counsel representing the city management, which received $286,206.64 of the current subtotal, and the hearing officer or administrative law judge who presided over the September to October hearing who, to date, has been paid $80,355.16. Hearing officer Douglas Barton is still reviewing the transcripts from all the testimonies and has not as yet submitted his recommendations to the council, so his bill is expected to increase some more.
The total price tag for the Browne case is expected to balloon even more when one considers other related expenses that have been incurred or may still be incurred. Below are some of these expenses:
 1. Browne’s seven-month administrative leave with pay at $9,000 a month for a total of $63,000. Former City Manager Yvonne Quiring placed Browne on administrative leave with pay in July of 2007. In February 2008, Quiring informed Browne that he was being terminated. In his testimony, both at his wrongful termination hearing before Barton and during his appeal hearing before an EDD judge over his unemployment benefit application that was denied by the city, Brown has consistently testified that he was never given due process prior to being fired. He said he was never given a verbal nor written warning, or an explanation from Quiring and from his immediate supervisor, Community Development Director Marilyn Ponton, as to why he was being put on administrative leave and why he was being fired. That’s not even mentioning the lost productivity from a key employee who has been working for the city for more than 15 years. At one point during that time, he wore two job hats - that of acting Public Works Director and chief building official.
 2. The financial equivalent of the time spent by various city staff - primarily the former city manager and the Community Development director - on the Browne case including being present at the approximately two weeks (cumulative) wrongful termination hearing before Judge Barton in September and October, and the four-hour hearing before the EDD administrative judge regarding Browne’s appeal over the city’s denial of his application for unemployment benefits. Browne prevailed at the EDD hearing, with the judge ruling that the former building official was qualified to receive unemployment benefits. There were other city staff who had to take time off from their regular work to testify and be a witness at the hearing before Barton.
Other expenses that could be factored in:
 1. If Browne prevails, and his attorney is confidently maintaining that he will, restitution money for him would include back pay since his termination in February 2008. That’s a total of 12 months, at least as of today, for a total of about $96,000. That figure could still grow depending on how soon Barton submits his recommendations to the council which will make the final determination.
 2. Browne’s legal counsel, San Francisco public employee attorney Ellen Mendelson, has given Lathrop officials notice early on that she will make sure the city will be responsible for Browne’s legal expenses, confident that her client will prevail.
 3. There’s also the cost involved in hiring the two people who were contracted by the city to take over Browne’s job responsibilities after he was let go.
 4. When Quiring resigned the week before the November elections, she walked away with more than $300,000 in separation pay based on the provisions of her contract. Sayles and Salcedo voted against accepting her resignation but they were outvoted by then Vice Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal and Council members Robert Oliver and Steve Dresser. Sayles argued that accepting Quiring’s resignation and giving her the hefty separation pay was a “waste of taxpayers’ money.” However, Council members Dhaliwal, Oliver and Dresser countered that it was the mayor herself who placed that provision in Quiring’s contract and voted for it herself.
But the other thing to remember about Quiring’s actions is that while Community Development Director Marilyn Ponton was Browne’s direct supervisor, it was Quiring who fired him based on the recommendations of Ponton.
The city could end up coughing up even more money if Browne decides to file a lawsuit against the city should he lose the case, and his attorney has alluded to that more than once. While other cities have insurance coverage for cases such as Browne’s, Lathrop does not have such a carrier which means the financial responsibility will fall on the city taxpayers.
The decision on Browne’s wrongful-termination charges will, of course, depend on the hearing judge’s determination of the facts gathered from all the testimonies presented as well as their veracity, but the sobering fact remains: how did a simple termination case get this far?
And that’s not even mentioning the story of the private investigator - and the cost involved - that the city hired to videotape Browne during a four-day period while he was on administrative leave with pay.

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