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Thousand Oaks City Hall Is Focus of Probe Request

Council wants D.A. to investigate whether a councilman violated state's meeting law in alleged effort to get a top official to step down.

April 21, 2005|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

The Thousand Oaks City Council is asking the Ventura County district attorney to look into charges that Councilman Andy Fox broke a state law by trying to force the city manager to resign.

At issue is whether the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law, was violated by the councilman who allegedly implied to City Manager Phil Gatch that there were enough votes to terminate his employment if he didn't leave voluntarily.

Gatch, who receives salary and benefits valued at more than $215,000 annually, has worked for Thousand Oaks for 38 years, the longest tenure of any city employee. The former community development director was promoted to city manager by the council in August 2003. The council majority then swung in Fox's favor with the November election of a Fox appointee.

Gatch, 64, submitted a letter of resignation dated March 31, but the council didn't vote on whether to accept it. Gatch has since told the mayor and others that he had been pressured by Fox to resign.

Fox on Wednesday declined to discuss the accusations, saying it was a personnel issue, but added that he has done nothing wrong and welcomed a thorough probe of City Hall.

"I want to get to the bottom of who's violating the Brown Act, who's mentioning details of closed-door sessions and who's leaking information to the press," Fox said.

Mayor Claudia Bill-de la Pena initially called for an investigation at Tuesday night's council meeting but wanted to hire an outside attorney to determine whether Fox or other council members had violated state law or the city's municipal code, which states that the city manager shall only take orders from the entire council.

"The issue is not whether a majority of the council can hire or fire a city manager. The issue is how this was handled. Was it handled properly," Bill-de la Pena said.

Her suggestion was defeated, and the council instead unanimously supported focusing on possible Brown Act violations and turning the matter over to the district attorney. The panel added that it wanted the investigation to cover all potential Brown Act violations back to when Gatch was hired.

Councilman Dennis Gillette said the priority would be to first determine whether any state laws were broken, and, if they were, the council could again consider examining the local ordinance.

"I think it's unfortunate that the situation has deteriorated to this point," he said. "Obviously, there are some things that truly need to be looked into."

The request had not reached the district attorney's office by Wednesday, according to Tom Harris, special assistant district attorney, who handles government oversight cases.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, an advocacy group for open government, said it could be difficult to prove a violation of the Brown Act. If a councilman were to suggest that he had enough votes to terminate an employee, that would not be a violation unless he were to have discussed the matter with fellow council members outside of council meetings.

"It's a subtle distinction, but it's a principled one in the law," he said. "It seems to me most citizens would want their government to have the flexibility in some way to get someone to resign rather than to be forced to have a confrontation where someone must be formally fired, because of the adverse effect it might have on the employee."

Gatch did not return calls for comment Wednesday but in an earlier interview about his resignation letter had said he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Nancy, and their four adult children.

"After nearly 40 years, the job has consumed so much time. I've missed a lot of my family's life, and now it's time to try to recapture some of that," he said.

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