Atascadero manager admits falsehoods
December 2, 2008
By KAREN VELIE
Atascadero city officials lied in public statements regarding an eminent domain controversy and made a scapegoat of a city employee.
City Manager Wade McKinney, one of those officials, confessed the deception only when testifying under oath in depositions earlier this year.
Outgoing Mayor Mike Brennler, a retired police detective, unveiled results of an investigation he conducted privately, exposing the seamy underbelly of Atascadero city government. The mayor apologized to the employee, Atascadero Redevelopment Director Marty Tracey, at a Nov. 25 council meeting. He requested that McKinney and the 2005 council, then-Mayor Wendy Scalise; Councilpersons George Luna, Tom O’Malley, Jerry Clay, and Becky Pacas also make amends with Tracey.
Brennler’s report focuses on the eminent domain dispute that resulted in three lawsuits against the city that were settled for approximately $110,000 earlier this year. Brennler utilized transcripts of numerous depositions in concluding that Tracey was used as a scapegoat by city officials.
A stack of those depositions, towering more than a foot high, document how the 2005 Atascadero City Council and several city officials violated numerous laws and repeatedly altered stories while pointing fingers at Tracey.
In February 2005, Tracey left a message on the Gaughan family’s answering machine, warning the semi-retired couple that the council had met in closed session and had directed staff to move ahead on eminent domain proceedings on a property the Gaughans owned across from the Carlton Hotel.
It is a violation of the Brown Act for council members to discuss eminent domain proceedings in closed sessions, according to Tom Hart, deputy director of the California Redevelopment Association.
Questioned by reporters regarding Tracey’s phone message to the Gaughans, McKinney, Scalise, two council members, and ex-city attorney Patrick Enright denied they had been involved in starting eminent domain proceedings. They claimed Tracey, whom they repeatedly dubbed a “rogue” employee, had not been in the Feb. 2005 closed session meeting in which Tracey stated the council voted to move ahead on eminent domain proceedings.
However, Brennler’s report includes e-mails documenting McKinney’s knowledge of the eminent domain proceedings.
“I am very glad to see eminent domain is headed forward,” McKinney wrote to Tracey in a March 2005 e-mail. “I think this is the real answer.”
Amid a public outcry regarding the eminent domain issue, city officials terminated, then rehired and demoted Tracey. The official demotion alleges he had been fired for negligently misrepresenting the city; being untruthful; threatening the Gaughans; and placing his hand in front of his face when confronted by a photographer. Officials kept details of Tracey’s demotion from the public until a few weeks ago, claiming such disclosure would violate Tracey’s privacy rights.
Brennler’s report concludes that Tracey did not misrepresent the city, was truthful, and did not threaten the Gaughans.
McKinney told attorney Ron Scholor in Nov. 2005 that Tracey was not in the closed session, according to Scholor’s investigative report.
But this May, McKinney admitted in depositions by Tracey’s attorney, David Warren, that he and the council were not honest about the eminent domain proceedings. And he acknowledges that Tracey was present during the closed door session.
Asked why city officials never made know to the public that Tracey had not misrepresented himself to the Gaughans, Wade said, “We’re protecting Marty’s privacy rights.”
“The personnel exemption under the California Public Records Act was developed to protect intimate details of personal and family life, not business judgments and relationships,” according to California Code and case law.
McKinney eventually said he approved of the phone message Tracey had left the Gaughans.
In Atascadero, not even the mayor is given easy access to public records. It took Brennler more than a month and a half to get copies of the McKinney, Gaughan, and Tracey depositions. First Amendment Coalition attorney Peter Shear asserted the city’s varied reasons for squelching Brennler’s access to the records were not valid.