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Judge backs Matt Browne

Ruling: Lathrop owes him back pay plus his old job

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Judge backs Matt Browne

Matt Browne, left, with his attorney Ellen Mendelson.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin/


POSTED April 14, 2009 4:55 a.m.
LATHROP — Fired Lathrop chief building official Matt Browne has won a sweeping victory in his two-year wrongful-termination battle against the city.
The long-awaited report and recommendation from Administrative Law Judge Douglas Barton who presided over Browne’s wrongful-termination hearing in September through October states that Browne be reinstated to his position as Chief Building Official with back pay plus health and vacation benefits up to the date of his reinstatement.
In his 50-page report to the City Council released on Good Friday, April 10, a copy of which was obtained by the Bulletin on Monday, Barton concluded among other things that former City Manager Yvonne Quiring denied Browne his due process before he was terminated and that her decision to terminate his employment “does not comply with the city’s personnel rules and regulations concerning employee conduct standards, progressive discipline, and dismissal.”
Furthermore, the report states that Quiring failed to respond to Browne’s repeated requests for any explanation or documentation regarding the notice of intent to terminate him that he received, and only did so two months later which “effectively deprived” him of any “meaningful” opportunity to review the documents and respond to the charges before the city manager made her decision to fire him.
Other findings in the report, which the hearing officer gathered from various testimonies during the cumulative two weeks’ worth of hearing, states that:
• During the six months Quiring placed Browne on paid administrative leave, “she and her staff assessed additional evidence of alleged misconduct and attempted to induce (Browne) to resign;”
• Allegations of misconduct “developed” while Browne was on paid administrative leave were “for the most part, not supported by substantial evidence;
• Prior to his termination, Browne had “an excellent record of employment with the city;
•  Browne has never been disciplined and that, in fact, his performance evaluations which were done by former Community Development Director Bruce Coleman were “quite laudatory,”
• Neither Quiring nor (Marilyn) Ponton, the city’s current Community Development Director and Browne’s immediate supervisor at the time of his administrative leave and termination, had given him any notice of “less favorable perceptions of his work” until the month before he was placed on administrative leave.
As to the charges made by the city against Browne in regards to his “departure from strict application of the Building Code,” the hearing officer concluded that those charges are not sufficient under city policies to support his termination.” Furthermore, the hearing officer states that “there is no evidence to support the (former) city manager’s contention that Browne was trading Building Code exceptions for favors from the project owners or developers” and that Browne “does seem genuinely to have been concerned about public safety and to have worked hard to manage the considerable construction that the city had encouraged.”
The report added, “The limited number of errors that the record evidences is simply not sufficient to terminate an employee with such a long record of meritorious service,” and that the additional allegations developed during his six-month administrative leave did not have any “substantial evidence.”
REACTIONS
Browne’s attorney, San Francisco public employee lawyer Ellen Mendelson, said she was “delighted with the findings of Mr.  Barton.”
She refrained from commenting further, noting that the City Council will still need to review the report and recommendations and vote on it at their next meeting, except to say, “I couldn’t be happier.”
She added that Browne should be reinstated to his old job “right away.”
Contacted for comment on Monday, council members Robert Oliver and Sonny Dhaliwal said they have not heard anything about the hearing officer’s report. A phone call to Mayor Kristy Sayles’ cell phone and home number seeking comment were not immediately returned. Phone calls were unable to be placed late Monday evening to Vice Mayor Martha Salcedo and Council member Christopher Mateo.
Oliver’s immediate reaction about the hearing officer’s findings and recommendations was one of disbelief.
“Are you teasing me? Wow! Wow! And that’s been released to the public? Okay, okay. Wow!”
He hesitated then added that he will wait until the council meets to discuss the report and recommendation from the hearing officer before making any comment.
“I still have to vote on it so I don’t want to be quoted on anything that might hamper my right to vote,” he said.
Dhaliwal also said he was reserving his comments until he has an opportunity to speak with the city attorney “and see what’s going on.”
Resident Dan Mac Neilage, who has been one of those who were critical of the way the Browne case has been handled by the city, said, “I am very glad Matt had the intestinal fortitude to hang in there and see to it (that) his name be cleared. Matt is a citizen here and his mom and son and daughter had to see this man dragged through the mud. For what? How do we say, ‘Mrs. Browne, there was a mistake and your son did not do these things, and we only took two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours to figure it out!’”
Mac Neilage added that “just a few short days ago, Matt had to bury his grandson and reach into an empty pocket and try to figure out how this was going to get done. The people responsible should be ashamed of themselves. This did not need to happen this way. This is just another blatant example of how things have been mishandled at City Hall since the Sayles regime has taken office. All those responsible should feel the shame and discontent they have imposed on Matt for these last two-plus years. We need to get back to the business of doing things right before we become bankrupt from all these shenanigans.”
Browne was fired in February of after being a Lathrop city employee for nearly 17 years, during which time he rose up the ranks including holding dual responsibilities at one time as deputy Public Works Director while serving as chief building official. Before his termination, he was placed on administrative with pay from July 2007 to February 2007. During that time, the city hired a private investigator who followed him for four days with the intention of substantiating their allegations that Browne was committing worker’s compensation fraud. While that was taking place, Browne had been released by his medical doctor to return to work only to be told that he was being placed on administrative leave with pay without any explanation.
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