Richard McKee—Californians Aware's Vice President for Open Government Compliance—explains, in a guest commentary in the South Bay Daily Breeze, why he's suing the City of Manhattan Beach for its sneaky and expensive sendoff of a city manager in 2009. The case is set for hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court on January 18.
We've watched in awe what's happened to the cities of Bell, Vernon, South Gate, Lynwood and others. And we've wondered just how it could happen. When does the secrecy and control, embraced by so many public officials, rise to such a level that residents should fear full-blown corruption has gripped their city? In Manhattan Beach, it may be now; the warning signs are there.
For decades voters have focused their support on candidates who tell us what we want to hear. We forget there is a lot more to governing our cities, school districts and water agencies than the one vote on whether Walmart comes to town, class sizes are reduced or the general manager gets a 10percent raise.
What we should look for is honesty, compassion, fairness, intelligence and a commitment to openness demonstrated by a genuine interest in hearing from all sides before making the best judgment possible for the community.
Instead, we are consistently faced with those officials who tell us what's best for us and how they are going to control the process so we get it. They don't listen. Counseled only by their friends or lobbyists, they withhold essential information and work secretly behind the scenes to control the outcome. It's a done deal before we know what's coming.
It is appropriate that, on the anniversary of one such backroom deal, we look at the Manhattan Beach City Council as an example of what can happen.
On a Saturday morning, Dec. 12, 2009, the City Council held a special meeting with one item of business on an agenda posted only 24 hours before. It was a closed session described as conference with legal counsel - exposure to litigation. But it wasn't true.
We now know that for some time a majority of council members were pushing to get the city manager out. But no notice had been given to residents that this move was being considered. It had been more than a half-year since any agenda had indicated the city manager's performance was being evaluated.
Nevertheless, the following day, Dec. 13, the city issued a press release announcing that City Manager Jeff Dolan had resigned, describing the parting as mutual. However, Dolan told newspapers that his resignation was the culmination of ongoing discussions with City Council members. Yet no City Council agenda ever contained notice of any such discussions.
Interestingly, the city's press release revealed the council had already appointed Dolan's interim replacement, another action that never appeared on any council agenda.
In the following weeks the truth began to appear. Secretly orchestrated by the city attorney, at the City Council's direction, a severance agreement had been created giving Dolan $194,344 if he would agree to resign immediately, even though his contract allowed the council to give him written notice of his termination, which would have cost the city nothing. But the city refuses to release that agreement for public inspection.
In court, the city now asserts there had been complaints made about Dolan, which could have caused the city to be sued if it hadn't gotten rid of him. Yet the city refuses to release these complaints, claiming at least one was anonymous. The city attorney says these complaints prompted an investigation, which he reported to the City Council. The city also refuses to release that report.
There are two lasting truisms in government - politics is perception, and secrecy breeds distrust.
Illegal secrecy allowed Bell council members to give the city manager $1.5 million a year and themselves $100,000 per year. Illegal secrecy allowed Vernon officials to control election outcomes and protect their more than $1 million annual incomes. Illegal secrecy allowed South Gate's treasurer to give city property to friends for practically nothing. Illegal secrecy allowed a private developer to appoint one of his political cronies to a high-paying San Bernardino County job, where he performed almost no work.
Now, illegal secrecy has allowed the Manhattan Beach City Council to make a weekend backroom deal before the public knew what was happening. But still, the public is on the hook for all the expenses.
The Brown Act and the Public Records Act should have made this kind of secret deal impossible, but not for corrupt politicians and an attorney willing to facilitate the fraud.
Before full-blown corruption grips their city, too, Manhattan Beach residents should retake control of their city government and demand openness and the right to be involved in decision-making.
As the Brown Act declares: "The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."