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Lathrop leaders burn thru $250K in tax dollars on Browne case

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POSTED April 7, 2009 4:36 a.m.
LATHROP — Did the Lathrop City Council break its own rule after approving a resolution on June 3, 2008 which budgeted $20,000 for the “engagement” of Douglas H. Barton as the hearing officer in the Matt Browne wrongful termination appeal case?

Latest figures obtained in March indicate the City of Lathrop so far has spent about $250,000 in legal fees in the appeal case that started way back in July 2007 when then-city manager Yvonne Quiring placed Browne on administrative leave with pay without explanation, followed by his firing in February 2008, also without any verbal or written explanation.

The city’s contract with Barton, approved on the same June 3, 2008 council meeting, also spells out that the council agreed to the San Francisco attorney’s billing rate of $395 per hour as stated in his letter dated May 20, 2008 to City Attorney Sal Navarrete. Barton concluded his letter with the statement, “This letter and the attached billing policy summary represent our entire agreement.”

The initial $20,000 mentioned in the June 3, 2008 resolution was taken out of the Human Resources Department.

Funds being used to cover the rest of the attorneys’ expenses are coming from the city’s general fund, or taxpayers’ money, since the city has no insurance coverage for the Browne case. Money in the general fund comes from sales tax and property taxes and is used for employees’ salaries as well as fire and police protection.

The above figures, though, only cover expenses paid to the attorneys representing management staff – Michael Colantuono and his office, and Barton and his law firm. They do not include costs connected with time spent by city staff – namely, the city attorney which is the legal counsel to the City Council; former city manager Quiring who resigned last year in October; interim City Manager Cary Keaten; and, Community Development Director Marilyn Ponton who was Browne’s supervisor, among others.

And the cost related to the Browne case is still climbing given the fact the process is still ongoing. Last month, the hearing officer notified the council that he will need an extra six to eight weeks to review the testimonies presented during the two-weeks’ worth of hearings held late last year before he can submit his recommendations as to whether Quiring’s actions in terminating Browne should be affirmed, reversed or modified.

Lathrop citizens who have been highly critical of the way the council has handled, and is handling the Browne appeal, have repeatedly questioned why Lathrop’s elected officials have not done anything to resolve this issue and stop the financial hemorrhage at City Hall once and for all. Of particular interest for resident Dan Mac Neilage is the “no warranty of result” clause in the agreement that the council signed with the hearing officer. In that clause, which was part of Barton’s letter to the council, he states that “although we believe that we can assist you in this matter, we cannot predict or represent that a particular result can be obtained within a specified time or at all. We can make no promise or guarantees regarding the outcome of the matter or matters that are the subject of our services.”

It’s a hole in the agreement that Browne’s attorney, Ellen Mendelson, has repeatedly pointed out. In September, she told the Bulletin, “He (Barton) will submit his conclusion in writing in reasonable time but there is no prescribed time frame for (him) to submit his conclusions to the city.”

“So, from the beginning, this guy could take forever and charge whatever and never reach a conclusion. Although his time will be spent expeditiously, no date is guaranteed – a month, two months, three months, or over a year. Furthermore, no decision was guaranteed (in the contract), right or wrong or indifferent. That’s a great deal; I want in on that,” Mac Neilage said.

He said he and several other concerned citizens would like to know how the city is spending several hundred thousand dollars in the Browne case when the agreement with the hearing officer stated only $20,000.

He said he was also bothered that “when the city entered into this agreement, they also gave him (Barton) the right to represent the city in any wrongful termination employee cases about the city, so he had an interest from the beginning to rule against Mike Browne. To me, where I come from, that’s called putting the cart in front of the horse. It’s ludicrous.”

Whether any of these will be discussed at a special closed meeting of the City Council this evening is not known. The notice simply states that this meeting will be a conference with city attorney regarding Government Code Section 54957 which deals with discipline, dismissal and release issues involving a public employee.

Specifically, the agenda item states that the purpose of the meeting is to discuss “procedural issues regarding services of appointed hearing officer Douglas H. Barton.”

As an added note, the agenda item states that “no specific charges against any current or former city employee will be discussed.”

After the closed session, the council will reconvene for the public portion of the meeting to make a report as to what has transpired.

The meeting will be held in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 390 Towne Centre Drive at Mossdale Landing.
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