Members of the Grass Valley City Council have different recollections of the circumstances surrounding the sudden resignation of former City Administrator Dan Holler in late August — and some of them do not recall ever discussing his noncompulsory severance package.
Several of the council members’ recollections of those events raise questions about the governing body’s adherence to the Brown Act, which dictates how local government agencies and their representatives operate and how they disclose their actions.
But City Attorney Michael Colantuono insisted the council did not violate the Brown Act.
“The only time the council acted on that (severance) proposal was in open session,” Colantuono said.
On Aug. 27, the council met behind closed doors to evaluate Holler’s employment, which was followed by a public meeting of the council. The agenda for that meeting lists a “Public Employee Performance Evaluation... City Administrator,” but makes no other specifications.
Mayor Dan Miller, Vice Mayor Jason Fouyer and Councilman Howard Levine said they recalled the council as a whole directed the mayor and the city attorney to meet with Holler after the public portion of that Aug. 27 meeting, in order to inform him of the negative evaluation with the authority to negotiate severance — though Fouyer said he wasn’t certain about the severance portion of the conversation.
“We did give (them) permission to engage Dan Holler on a whole list of topics,” Fouyer said. “Permission to have a frank conversation regarding his performance.”
However, section 54957.1(A)5 of the Brown Act states, “Action taken to ... affect the employment status of a public employee in closed session ... shall be reported at the public meeting during which the closed session is held.”
No announcements were made at that late August meeting about any actions taken in the closed session.
“If they gave the mayor direction, they have to report it,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Though California law protects cities from disclosing personnel matters, the city attorney said council only instructed him and the mayor to give Holler the negative evaluation information. Councilwomen Lisa Swarthout and Jan Arbuckle also said the direction was to deliver the evaluation only.
“His employment was affected when he chose to resign,” Colantuono said.
After the mayor and the city attorney met with Holler, Colantuono said he met privately with Holler to discuss the terms of his resignation. In that discussion, Holler suggested that the council honor a three-months pay clause of his contract, the city attorney said — even though that same document dictated that such a departing salary would not be paid in the event of a resignation.
“Based on our discussion, the severance provided for my employment agreement will be provided, as will other obligation of the agreement,” reads Holler’s resignation letter, which the council accepted without discussion at a Sept. 4 special meeting. The agenda for the special meeting described Holler’s resignation letter as a “Receive and File” item only, with no mention of the expenditure of funds. “We could have done a better job disclosing that,” Colantuono said.
Despite a lack of discussion about severance or expenditures, Colantuono has said that by adopting Holler’s official resignation, council was agreeing to pay $82,000 in total severance that including the three months’ pay, as well as accrued benefits such as vacation and sick leave.
“There wasn’t a (severance) understanding until the council agreed upon (the letter of resignation),” Colantuono said in response to a question about whether he had council authority to negotiate the three months’ pay with Holler.
“We thought it was the right thing to do,” Miller said about approving the three months’ salary.
Swarthout, Miller and Arbuckle did not recall discussing Holler’s severance with their council peers, though Miller noted he understood that accepting the resignation letter meant agreeing to it.
“We all agreed that Dan was to get a severance,” Fouyer said. “We know what Dan makes per month... We knew in broad figures what that would be like. But we didn’t expect him to have so much vacation and sick time.”
“We didn’t talk about specific amounts,” Levine said. “I didn’t know what the amount was until I read it in the paper.”
The Union reported Holler’s severance on Sept. 10, based on documents the city readily provided when requested.
Colantuono attributed the omission of disclosing Holler’s salary on the Sept. 4 agenda to getting lost in transition during the leadership void. At the time of Holler’s resignation, the city was also losing its finance director.
“When you are between city (administrators), we don’t always have the time and staff resources to do the agendas we’d like to,” Colantuono said. “I don’t think there was any intent to conceal that payment.”
Holler, whose last official day as the administrator was Sept. 3, was officially hired Wednesday night by the town of Mammoth Lakes as its interim town manager, retroactive to Tuesday when he began the position unofficially, according to Mammoth Lakes town documents.
With Holler employed elsewhere, the City of Grass Valley is partially relieved of a $82,000 severance package,
“It was about doing the right thing,” said Fouyer. “I’m willing to stand by that. Dan served the city for many years, he was a good guy. He was dedicated to the city, so why would we not honor that agreement?”
Holler will only be paid about one third of the severance salary the council agreed to pay him, which The Union estimates will save Grass Valley approximately $20,000.
Not including accrued benefits such as unused vacation or sick days, Grass Valley will have paid Holler a total of nearly $10,000 in severance salary alone for more than 30 days of being unemployed, according to Public Works Director Tim Kiser, the acting city administrator.
Because the city’s finance director took a job in Napa Valley and the position is still vacant, the exact figures for Holler’s other accrued benefits were not available as of press time.
“We are very concerned about our finances going forward,” Levine said. “Firstly, we are glad (Holler) got the (Mammoth) job. But number two, we are pleased for the city, because now there remains a little more money in the general fund.”
Holler’s new Gig
Holler, who had been Grass Valley’s city administrator for five years, takes over in Mammoth Lakes following its own former town manager, Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, resigning on Sept. 2 following three closed-door evaluations of her position and months of butting heads with the council, according to the Mammoth Times newspaper.
The draft employment agreement for Holler has him earning an annual salary of $158,000 — a $50,000 (24 percent) reduction from Martinez’s salary, according to a Mammoth Lakes government report.
While in Mammoth Lakes, Holler has said he will continue to work with Keith Logan, a sustainability consultant, to craft a new model for Nevada County’s public access broadcasting organization in the wake of the Nevada County Digital Media Center’s board announcing that the station would close by mid-October.
Holler has worked with Logan to craft a slimmed-down operation plan as an alternative to shuttering the station — an endeavor he said he disclosed to Mammoth Lakes that he would continue without affecting his managerial responsibilities.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.