San Clemente city officials Saturday released the report of a hearing officer who concluded that the city was justified in firing then-Police Chief Kelson McDaniel but added that McDaniel may have faced problems beyond his control.
Robert E. Rickles, a retired state Court of Appeal justice, submitted the seven-page report Friday night, based on 50 hours of testimony during public hearings in August and even on Labor Day.
The hearings were conducted at the request of McDaniel's attorney, who claimed the former chief was forced to resign without just cause and should have been given a hearing beforehand.
But Rickles concluded that "McDaniel was an employee at-will and as such was subject to termination at the pleasure of the city manager." McDaniel also was not entitled to a hearing before the firing, Rickles stated, but was entitled to the "reputation-clearing" hearing afterward, which he got.
Punitive Style Cited
City Manager James B. Hendrickson asked McDaniel to resign May 28 after an independent consultant concluded that it was unlikely the chief could regain the confidence of his officers, who cited a punitive and uncommunicative management style as reasons for an overwhelming vote of no confidence.
During the hearings, McDaniel's attorney, Fred T. Ashley, tried to show Rickles that there was only a perceived communication problem on the part of the officers, and that McDaniel actually had an open-door policy as chief.
But Rickles stated that whether the breakdown in communications existed or not, the officers' perception of the problem led to a loss of trust in the chief.
Rickles, however, called the circumstances surrounding the no-confidence vote an "explosive situation," which may have been beyond McDaniel's control.
Rickles cited low pay, low average ratio of police officers to population, overcrowded police facilities, remodeling of facilities and contract negotiations between the city and the officers as contributing to low police morale.
"There was no evidence showing McDaniel's termination resulted from any misconduct or moral turpitude, nor was there any evidence reflecting on his character or damaging to his reputation to serve as a police chief. The evidence only supports the proposition the termination was due to conflict as to his management style and his ability to control a volatile situation," Rickles stated.
"Under these circumstances, I do not feel it would be in the best interest of either McDaniel or the city to reinstate him as chief of police," Rickles concluded.
He added that McDaniel should receive three months' back pay.
McDaniel could not be reached for comment Saturday. But Ashley said the judge had vindicated his client by concluding there was no evidence to support accusations against him, including those that he had made racist comments and had imposed illegal ticket quotas.
"But that's not to say that the damage to his reputation cannot be undone," Ashley said.
McDaniel filed a $4.35-million claim against the city July 30, accusing city administrators, City Council members and police officers of engaging in a "conspiracy" to cause him emotional distress and force him to resign after 18 months as chief.
Ashley said he will ask the court not to consider Rickles' decision, so McDaniel can seek monetary damages.
Ashley contends that McDaniel had an implied contract with the city, and was not an at-will employee. He also contends that McDaniel didn't lose control but was stripped of his control by the City Council and Hendrickson, who immediately placed McDaniel on administrative leave after the no-confidence vote.
He also said Rickles did not consider the role the City Council played in McDaniel's firing. During the hearing, two City Council members testified that they had tallied the no-confidence votes at the request of Peace Officer Assn. members.
Hendrickson said Saturday that the judge's conclusion speaks for itself and validates the city's actions.