City of Thousand Oaks,  Politics

City of Thousand Oaks City Manager’s Resignation Sparks In-fighting and Investigations

Flap previosuly reported on Phil Gatch’s, City Manager of the City of Thousand Oaks, resignation and the FLAP that ensued.

At this Tuesday evening’s Thousand Oaks City Council meeting the sparks flew and an investigation launched:

The controversy over the fate of the current Thousand Oaks city manager took a new turn during Tuesday’s city council meeting, dividing the council further.

Instead of resolving the issue in a closed session during the meeting, the council called for an investigation into whether or not state laws had been violated concerning the possibly coerced resignation of longtime city employee Phil Gatch.

According to letters obtained by the Thousand Oaks Acorn, Gatch, the city’s 64-year-old city manager, was pressured to resign by Councilmember Andy Fox on March 23.

When the action became public, residents protested, arguing that Gatch, a 38-year employee of the city credited with authoring the city’s general plan, deserved better. Many singled out Fox as the instigator, supported by council members Jacqui Irwin and Dennis Gillette.

“I don’t know Mr. Gatch but I know that what was done to him was wrong,” said Linda Brown, who was among more than 20 speakers, including several former city leaders, who spoke on Gatch’s behalf during the council meeting. “Lower level workers can have no faith in higher ranks if they see this kind of treatment.”

Mayor Claudia-Bill de la Pena requested that outside counsel be called in to review the circumstances surrounding what’s been called a forced resignation to ensure no impropriety. But Gillette balked at the idea of spending an unknown amount of money on an inquiry and criticized the mayor for wanting to single out specific council members.

City Attorney Amy Albano suggested that the district attorney would be the appropriate party to investigate possible violations of the Brown Act violations. The Brown Act is California’s open meetings law that requires government business to be conducted in the open. Elected officials are specifically forbidden to take action behind closed doors or outside the public forum. Albano suggested writing a letter to the D.A.’s office, but pointed out that the district attorney may already be looking into the issue.

“They don’t tell us when they do that,” Albano said. “They read the papers. They know what’s going on.”

Fox took the mayor’s idea further, calling for an investigation into possible violations of the Brown Act over the past two years—from the time Gatch was appointed to city manager.

“I welcome an investigation,” Fox said. “I didn’t violate any state laws or rules.”

Irwin echoed Fox, adding that closed session discussions on the issue that were revealed to the public were Brown Act violations and deserved further investigation.

Bill-de la Pena also wanted the inquiry to include possible violations of city code, but such an investigation must be conducted by an outside counsel, something that Fox, Irwin and Gillette voted down. Only Councilmember Ed Masry supported Bill-de la Pena’s motion.

Larry Horner, who served on the council for nearly 17 years, including four terms as mayor, agreed that an investigation would clear up rumors and offer a resolution. But he felt that rather than focusing on the past two years, the investigation should only address the current issue of Gatch’s employment.

“What’s past is past,” Horner said. “This situation appears to be a power struggle or a personal conflict. It should have been handled in an entirely different way.”

Albano will draft a letter on the council’s behalf to the D.A., she said.

Mayor Horner is correct that this matter should have been handled in a different manner. But, will the Linda Park’s crowd, including other council candidate wannabes and amen chorus allow slow-growth advocate Gatch to slowly fade into the sunset?

The Ventura County Star (free registration required) now reports that now the City Council has agreed to hire outside counsel to negotiate the possible resignation of the City Manager:

Two days after the Thousand Oaks City Council voted unanimously to investigate itself, City Attorney Amy Albano said Thursday that the city has hired outside counsel to negotiate the possible resignation of the city manager.

The resignation letter of City Manager Phil Gatch has fueled accusations that the 38-year city employee was pressured to leave by Councilman Andy Fox. This week, the council agreed to ask the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office or the state attorney general to investigate possible violations of the state’s open meeting law.

Although the City Attorney’s Office has the expertise to negotiate the terms of a possible resignation for Gatch, hiring an outside attorney is a good decision given the circumstances, Albano said.

“I believe the relationship between the council, the city manager and the city attorney, given everything that’s going on, has become awkward,” she said. “This was really done to lessen the awkwardness.”

The city has hired Melanie Poturica, a managing partner for Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. The city will pay $250 an hour for her services.

On Tuesday, the council gave direction to Albano’s office to contact the District Attorney’s Office to seek an investigation.

Mayor Claudia Bill-de la Pena has contended that some council members might have violated the state’s open meeting law based on conversations she had with Gatch, she said. Gatch told her he was pressured to resign by Fox, who apparently implied he had the three votes to fire him, she has said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Fox said he welcomed an investigation and said he believed that others, not him, might have violated the Brown Act.

It is unusual for a council to seek an investigation into itself, said Tom Harris, special assistant district attorney.

“It is my experience that it is relatively unusual for a city council to invite an investigation of this nature,” he said. “However, I do recall Thousand Oaks is a city that has done it at least once in the past.”

About three years ago, the District Attorney’s Office investigated allegations of potential Brown Act violations among some planning commissioners. The office concluded there had been no violations.

Harris said he is unaware of any other city that has requested such an investigation in the eight years in his position.

He said the District Attorney’s Office would consider the merits of a city’s request just as it would any other request. As of Thursday, he had not received an official request from the city.

The Mayor and her supporters did not win majority control of the Council in November 2004. She and Councilman Masry are in the minority and the majority wants to replace Gatch – big deal – let him go. He has served the City well but a majority of the council wants a new manager with a new direction.

Flap cannot help but think that the Major is sore because she simply is not getting her own way and by creating a FLAP she hopes to discredit sitting councilmembers. In the process she is making herself appear as an ineffectual leader and denigrates city government.

She needs to remember the November 2006 council elections are long off and voters will little remember these machinations. In fact, most residents do not even know or care who the City Manager is.

So, Mayor gather a few more headlines and make your supporters feel good and then step out of the way and allow the City find a new manager.