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Browne saga conclusion: so near yet so far
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LATHROP — Former Lathrop chief building official Matt Browne is neither an actor nor a comedian.

For one thing, there’s nothing funny about the role thrust upon him for nearly two years now – a man desperately seeking justice for being wrongly terminated from his job with the city that he has served, from plenty of indications, quite meritoriously for more than 15 years.

But in the past two years, he has been looking more and more like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield who made himself famous with his self-deprecating line about getting no respect from anybody.

Despite his legal victories, and despite the recommendation by an administrative law judge that he be rehired and compensated with nearly two years of back pay (at more than $8,000 a month salary) plus benefits following the conclusion of his wrongful-termination hearings, Browne still can’t seem to get any respect, much less the least bit of attention from the powers-that-be in Lathrop for all the foot-dragging that has been going on.

He still does not have his job back.

He has yet to see a penny of his back pay.

And the city has consistently ignored his repeated requests to keep his hearings open to the public. In fact, the June 23 council meeting in which the council members were supposed to vote on the hearing officers’ recommendations and which was supposed to be his public hearing as city officials indicated, it was not made public at all in the sense that it was not televised which came as a complete surprise not just to Browne himself and his attorney but to other Lathrop citizens as well who have been keenly following the Browne saga. Some residents even complained to the council that the reason they did not show up at the council meeting was because they were expecting to see it streamed live to their living rooms via cable TV. Retired Lathrop-Manteca Fire District chief Jerry Sims was one of those who questioned the council about that at the recent meeting. All council meetings, as a rule, are televised live.

In light of all of the above, not just a few very concerned citizens of Lathrop – including former two-time mayor Bennie Gatto - have started to wonder aloud: Is a Browne lawsuit against the city, a much more expensive proposition than the offer currently on the table based on the hearing officer’s recommendations and one that the city-in-the-red can ill afford at this time when annual deficits of $2.5 million or more are projected within the next five years, be on the near horizon?

And why should a Browne lawsuit about his wrongful termination be a very expensive proposition and one that the city leaders should try to avoid at all cost? For one thing, his lawyer, San Francisco public employee attorney Ellen Mendelson, has only been saying repeatedly like a mantra from the beginning that her client has been blatantly denied a “Skelly” hearing.

Defined by the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, “a Skelly is a hearing which must be provided to an employee prior to the imposition of discipline. Generally, Skelly’s must be provided in the case of termination, demotion, suspension, reduction in pay and transfer with an accompanying loss in pay. An employee’s Skelly rights entitle the employee to due process consisting of: (1) notice of the intended disciplinary action; (2) a copy of all materials upon which the action is based (including material which was available for review by the individual responsible for imposing discipline, regardless of whether such information was, in fact, reviewed); and, (3) an opportunity to respond orally or in writing to an impartial reviewer prior to the effective date of the disciplinary action.”

The fact the hearing judge recommended Browne’s return to his old job with full salary and benefits compensation points to that gross oversight by the city.

As a quick background to the series of events in the Browne saga and how it arrived to this point-of-no-conclusion so far, here’s a quick tour:

June 2007: Browne filed a worker’s comp claim, about a month after finishing work on the remodeling and rehabilitation of the Senior Center. He suffered a herniated disc from operating the jackhammer that he and fellow city employee Fred Manuel used to remove cement from the project. City officials decided to utilize some of its employees, including Brown who had prior contractor experience, to do some of the construction work in order to cut costs.

July 2007: Then-City Manager Yvonne Quiring placed Browne on paid administrative leave. No explanation was given. The order from Quiring came on July 26, the day before he was scheduled to return to his job after being cleared by his primary doctor to return to work

August 2007: A camcorder-toting private investigator hired by the city tailed Browne for four days from his home to various destinations including the men’s room of the Manteca Golf Course. The video, a copy of which was obtained by Browne’s lawyer from the city, showed Browne filling up his vehicle at a gas station, eating breakfast at the Manteca Golf Course restaurant, playing golf, and even visual evidences that the gumshoe followed him to the restroom.

The city’s intent was to obtain proof that he was playing golf while supposedly on workers’ comp, and then use that as the basis for his termination. The city has not given any answers despite being asked directly by various residents at several council meetings as to who authorized the private investigator, how much money was paid for his service and whether it involved taxpayers’ money. For the record, Browne gave proofs during the hearings that he was medically released and, in fact, was getting ready to go back to work, when this incident took place.

February 2008: Browne was fired by Quiring. Again, no official explanation was given. Instead, his severance check was delivered at his doorstep when he was not at home. So the delivery person simply stuck his five-digit paycheck onto his screen door. Along with the check was a brown box left on his doorstep containing thousands of pages of city records. A letter from the city manager, which was in the box, explained that the explanation he requested about the reasons for his termination were in the official records contained in the box. Browne still does not know who personally delivered his severance paycheck and the thousands of pages of city records that were in the box.

Since the city failed to give him the public podium at the June 23 council meeting, the points that Browne was going to address are being made open to the public based on a copy of his prepared statement that the Bulletin was able to obtain are presented below:

May 2008: Browne hires Ellen Mendelson, a well-known public-employee attorney in San Francisco, as his lawyer in his wrongful-termination complaint against the city. Browne, through his lawyer, informs the city he wants his hearings to be held open to the public and the news media. The city nixes his request.

Sept. – Oct. 2008: After being postponed a number of times, one of them due to the resignation of the first administrative law judge selected to conduct the hearing, Browne’s wrongful-termination hearings begin with San Francisco administrative law judge Douglass Barton presiding. The hearings, which had nearly a dozen witnesses testifying on Browne’s behalf including former city employees, lasted for nearly two weeks cumulatively.

April 10 (Good Friday) 2009: The long-awaited report and recommendation from judge Barton was released. In his 50-page report to the council, Barton stated 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. 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.”

At the conclusion of the last public hearing on the judge’s recommendations, the council went back into close session. Before doing so, Mayor Kristy Sayles put the news media present on notice not to wait for a post closed-session report because there won’t be any announcement to be made.

As of this moment, no such announcement has been made. However, the Bulletin has learned that the city has made “golden handshake” settlement offers to Browne but that has not been confirmed by the city.