Around Manhattan Beach City Hall they called him the Mastermind. And it fit, right to the bitter endgame.
For 15 years, Manhattan Beach City Manager Geoff Dolan ruled City Hall, as powerful and unquestioned as Bell's infamous former city manager, Robert Rizzo. Tall, thin and soft-spoken behind his carefully clipped salt-and-pepper goatee, Dolan was admired and even feared for running the city with a strong hand.
Outside City Hall he proudly led the Metlox Dogs, a born-to-be-mild motorcycle club that included most of the city's eight department heads.
Sporting leather jackets and do-rags, the middle-aged men took all-day joyrides on their huge Hondas and Harleys and joked about how easy it was to get days off from Manhattan Beach City Hall.
“I enjoy working with people I like and can have fun with,” Dolan told the Easy Reader newspaper back in 2007.
But eventually some employees noticed that the married father of two was allegedly having a little too much fun with young female city employees. Someone secretly complained, sending in a typed list of allegations. The anonymous accusations, quietly mailed to city officials in late 2009, charged a drunken Dolan with making loud, disgusting comments at a “team-building” management retreat in Pismo Beach, and “inappropriate/unwelcomed touching which may border on a sexual assault” later that night.
Days later, Dolan, 57, equally quietly admitted to “inappropriate behavior.”
In many cities, such an admission would result in termination. Not in Manhattan Beach, whose 33,500 residents value its high-tone, pristine image every bit as much as its high-grade, pristine beaches.
The City Council quietly confirmed Dolan's behavior in a closed-door confrontation described to the Weekly by a city council member who requested anonymity.
In the private meeting, the City Council debated: Should it fire Dolan and attract bad press? Or keep the sexual-misbehavior allegations under wraps, push him out and hope no other complaints came in?
Yet somehow, during four executive sessions over the next month, City Manager Dolan turned the tables. City Attorney Robert Wadden, who has worked with Dolan since 1996, repeatedly told the City Council that Dolan would sue — unless the city handed him a special payment to walk away.
On Dec. 12, 2009, at a secret, 28-minute, Saturday-morning meeting held in violation of California open-government laws, the council consented to Dolan's demand.
It secretly handed Dolan $195,000 to resign, and $75,000 in accrued vacation pay based on his own self-monitored use of his seven weeks of vacation per year.
Each side agreed not to speak badly of the other.
But the enforced silence lasted only about 15 months, thanks to a Pasadena professor who specializes in squeezing public documents from secretive government officials and decided to find out what was going on.
The Manhattan Beach City Council members — Portia Cohen, Mitch Ward, Nick Tell, Richard Montgomery and Wayne Powell — had insisted publicly that Dolan's surprising departure was a routine resignation.
Cohen assured Manhattan Beach residents that “Geoff was interested in pursuing new endeavors, and we accepted that sentiment. It was a resignation. It was mutual.”
But the Weekly, using documents obtained through a public records request, reported in January 2010 that Dolan hadn't merely resigned — for unknown reasons, he'd been secretly paid $195,000 from the city's recession-racked coffers. A year later, the city admitted the total was $270,000.
The big losers: the taxpayers of Manhattan Beach, who were coping with brutal budget cuts amid a $4 million deficit.
City Attorney Wadden at the time revealed the city had signed a “resignation and release” agreement with Dolan, but insisted to the Weekly it was not a public record. The Weekly presented a contrary opinion from the California First Amendment Coalition, but Wadden dismissed it.
“I relied on Bob Wadden's advice,” Cohen, a lawyer herself, explained recently.
Richard McKee, vice president of good-government group Californians Aware, started asking questions after hearing about taxpayer outrage over the $270,000 payout, initially described by city leaders as “severance pay” for a job well done.
McKee, a Pasadena City College chemistry professor who is considered one of the leading experts on California's open-government laws, was convinced the City Council had lied about Dolan's resignation.
McKee believed Wadden and the City Council had committed numerous violations of the Brown Act open-meeting law and the California Public Records Act, while covering up the facts.
McKee, who has filed 26 lawsuits against government entities and has won 21 of them, sued Manhattan Beach in April 2010.
“Wadden stalled, delayed and ignored deadlines for as long as he could,” McKee tells the Weekly. “But eventually the court held him accountable.”
Several days ago, the city settled McKee's lawsuit. The council admitted to violating the Brown Act several times, agreed to train city staff in the Brown Act and California Public Records Act laws, lowered the copying cost for public records from a staggering 40 cents per page to 10 cents, and paid Californians Aware's $70,000 legal costs.
And, although it is not part of the formal settlement, one council member tells the Weekly that Wadden will be gone soon.
Ultimately the fiasco cost Manhattan Beach more than $450,000: $270,000 in payouts and vacation, $70,000 for McKee's legal costs, $20,000 for outside lawyers the city paid to negotiate the settlement with McKee**, $70,000 in “bonus” money paid to Dolan's temporary replacement and at least $25,000 to defend the McKee lawsuit. If it had fired Dolan with six months' notice, it needn't have cost a penny.
“It's not corruption on the same scale as Bell, but it's corruption of the same type,” McKee says. “They handed out public money improperly, and then worked overtime to cover it up and confuse the public.”
When the City Council first confronted Dolan about the anonymous allegations, he vehemently denied them. But the council had heard rumors about Dolan's behavior toward women, and under members' pointed questioning, he grudgingly admitted to “inappropriate behavior,” according to a council member who requested anonymity.
Dolan insisted his bad behavior was in the past and that he had apologized to the women involved.
But two City Council camps quickly emerged: Cohen, Tell and Ward leaned toward Wadden's advice to pay Dolan off and avoid an expensive investigation while Dolan was placed on paid suspension. Powell and Montgomery argued that the city had good cause to fire Dolan — and should call his bluff.
The documents show that Dolan's contract allowed him a six-month severance package of $195,000 — but only if the city fired him with no warning. His contract did not entitle him to the money if he resigned.
Yet Wadden advised the council that it could ignore the contract. He warned that Manhattan Beach faced potential civil suits from at least two of Dolan's alleged victims if the city fired him, and said that none of the city department heads, most of them Metlox Dogs, had ever complained about Dolan's behavior. Some council members found it bizarre that Wadden seemed to be simultaneously representing both the City Council and Dolan.
At the second closed-door session, Dolan offered short, dismissive answers that bordered on insubordination. The council became determined to get rid of him quickly, even on Dolan's pricey terms.
It ended quietly at a Saturday-morning closed session that the city, illegally, never informed the public about. Dolan the Mastermind had proved to be the smartest guy in the room.
He now lives in Lawndale. His wife, Marilee, moved to Boulder, Colo., where she became the real estate partner of his brother, Patrick Dolan.
Reached for comment in Lawndale, the normally smooth Dolan screamed, “Fucking reporters!” and slammed the phone down.
He sounded more like “Ratso” Rizzo than the Mastermind.
** Correction: Due to an editing error, the original story misstated the nature of the $20,000 legal fee paid to an outside attorney by the city.
Contact the writer at email@example.com.