The Susanville City Council met in closed session at 9 a.m. Monday, Dec. 28 for a conference with legal council regarding existing litigation — a lawsuit between the city and former Susanville police officers Michael Bollinger and Matthew Wood. File photos

Council approves settlement agreements with fired cops

The contentious dispute between the city of Susanville and two veteran police officers has finally been resolved — reversing a previous council’s decisions to terminate the officers and later reject their appeals of their terminations for questioning the practices the city followed in the hiring of former Susanville Police Chief John King in 2016.

Today, Lassen News obtained an 11-page Confidential Settlement Agreement and General Release signed by the former Susanville Police Department Sergeant Mike Bollinger and Susanville City Manager/Susanville Police Chief Kevin Jones on Dec. 23, and another agreement signed by SPD Lieutenant Matt Wood and Jones, also on Dec. 23, after filing a California Public Records Act request for the documents on Dec. 28 after learning about the settlements.

The Susanville City Council approved the agreements during a closed session Dec. 28 meeting. In a Wednesday, Jan. 6 email, Jones reported the vote on the agreements was 4-1, with aye votes from Mayor Mendy Schuster and councilmembers Brian Moore, Quincy McCourt and Thomas Herrera. Councilmember Kevin Stafford cast the lone dissenting vote.

According to the agreements, the claimants and their attorneys “shall keep the existence, terms and conditions of this agreement completely and strictly confidential” … and upon inquiry “shall state only that the matter has been resolved.”      Despite that confidentiality agreement, “Claimants acknowledge because the city is a public entity, it may have obligations to disclose this agreement or its terms.”

 

Brouhaha has cost taxpayers more than $550,00 that we know about

According to his agreement, Wood will receive $225,000 in three parts — $63,000 as wages, $81,537,50 as non-economic damages and $80,462.50 earmarked for Susanville attorney Eugene Chittock for attorney’s fees and costs.

Bollinger will receive $115,000 in three parts — $20,000 as wages, $12,870.83 as non-economic damages and $82,129.17 for Chittock.

Bollinger also will be allowed to return to his position as a sergeant with the SPD subject to qualification contingencies. If he returns to the SPD, he will receive 339 hours of sick leave, 120 hours of vacation time and 120 holiday hours subject to the conditions of city policy. He will also receive reimbursement of $1,000 for uniform-related expenses.

In addition, if allowed by CalPers, the city shall “buyback” four years of service credit for Bollinger, not to exceed $115,000. If CalPers denies this buyback, Bollinger will receive the $115,000 as wages.

If Bollinger cannot return to his position with the SPD the city will follow a different payment structure for him.

In addition, “The city shall re-designate claimants’ terminations from the city in July 20187 from involuntary discharges to voluntary resignations,” and remove all negative documentations from the city’s files “including any investigative reports and notices of discipline.”

 

Background of the dispute

The conflict between the city and the officers began after Bollinger and Wood — both applicants for the chief’s job — expressed concerns regarding the practices the city followed in the hiring of former Susanville Police Chief John King.

Former city administrator Jared Hancock told the Lassen County Times the council directed him to extend a conditional offer of employment to King and to initiate a background investigation and verification of his qualifications on Nov. 17, 2016.

In the uproar that followed, a crime report alleging forgery and impersonation of a police officer in regard to a background document used in King’s hiring was filed. A criminal complaint also was filed with the Lassen County Grand Jury and the California Department of Justice.

The United Public Employees of California Local 792, the union that represents the Susanville Police Officers Association also expressed concerns over King’s hiring.

The officers appealed their July 2017 terminations, and in May 2018 those appeals were denied by a 4-1 council vote in closed session. Mayor Kathie Garnier, Mayor pro tem Joe Franco and councilmembers Brian Wilson and Kevin Stafford voted to deny the officers’ appeals. Councilmember Mendy Schuster cast the lone vote supporting the officers.

 

Lassen County Grand Jury

The 2017-2018 Lassen County Grand Jury soundly criticized the city’s employment practices.

According to its report, the grand jury discovered “a lack of consistency” with the city’s hiring practices that began in 2014, and placed that responsibility squarely on the council.

“The Susanville City Council is the chief operating authority for the city,” the grand jury wrote. “Complete accountability ultimately rests with the five elected councilmembers.”

“During this investigation, it became quite apparent there were a myriad of discrepancies with the hiring and firing process used by the city administrator,” the grand jury reported. “In turn, these were supported by the Susanville City Council during the 2016 hiring process of the police chief.”

The grand jury also found the city council “failed to assure a fair hiring practice for the police chief. This occurred by allowing the city administrator the sole power to conduct the entire hiring process.”

In addition, the grand jury also found the city failed to cross reference changes to the job announcement bulletin during the process of hiring the police chief.

“This job announcement reduced the qualifications necessary to be hired. This should have been a red flag warning, but instead appeared to be ignored,” the grand jury reported.

Moreover, the grand jury found concerns raised by members of the public as well as former and current city employees regarding the city administrator’s management style and hiring practices were not addressed.

“When this information was presented to the city council, it appeared warranted yet went unheeded,” the grand jury reported. “This responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of the Susanville City Council.”

The grand jury also found the city council allowed Hancock “far too much latitude” when it came to hiring city employees. This was “inappropriate and there was an extreme lack of checks and balances.”

The grand jury found “many circumstances” when it appeared the council conducted business in closed sessions that should have been conducted in open sessions.

“This eliminated any possibilities for public input and media coverage,” the grand jury reported. “It also served as a lack of transparency with possible civil code or Brown Act violations.”

 

Seeking a writ of mandate — an order from the court requiring a governmental entity to follow the law

After the council upheld their terminations, the officers filed a motion for a writ of mandate from the Lassen County Superior Court. Local judges Tony Mallery and Mark Nareau both recused themselves from the case

Candace Beason, a visiting Lassen County Superior Court Judge heard the case, issued her opinion and sent the matter back to the council to reconsider after reading her comments.

“The court finds that Wood and Bollinger exercised a legal right when they individually filed grievances to the hiring process to fill the position of Susanville Police Chief,” Beason wrote. “There is no evidence in the record to establish a malicious intent in filing the grievances or the police report to document the unauthorized use of Wood’s signature to obtain confidential information. The Susanville City Council’s factual findings demonstrate an imputation of malice to both petitioners that taints the findings of misconduct and the decision to terminate petitioners’ employment.”

“The city was aware that the court was going to remand these cases to the city council for reconsideration, and has been awaiting that action,” said Mike Wilson, former Susanville city administrator in August 2019. “These matters will be placed on a closed session agenda for in late August or early September for further review by the councilmembers who originally heard the disciplinary appeals. As this remains a personnel matter, further comment at this time would be inappropriate.”

In March 2020, the city and the officers agreed to mediation, and the city agreed to pay all the costs. The two sides finally met a few weeks ago.

In July 2018, in response to a California Public Records Act request from Susanville resident Chris Cole, Jessica Ryan, then the city attorney, reported the city had spent more than $100,000 on legal fees in the matter so far, although some information “considered protected by attorney-client privilege was not released.”

“Fundamentally these were two good officers who were mistreated, and I want to know the finances of this,” Cole told the Lassen County Times in 2018. “I think it was an outrage … I’m looking for some transparency and new leadership. This has hurt Susanville and law enforcement, and from day one until now, it’s hurt the city a lot, and it probably could have been avoided.”

Cole also filed another CPRA request on the city’s legal expenditures in 2020.