City of Atascadero responds to grand jury criticism

Atascadero will consider revising how it informs the public on employee actions, according to the city’s formal response to a June civil grand jury report on a settlement with former police chief James Mulhall.

Mulhall unexpectedly resigned Jan. 7 to “spend more time with his family,” according to a statement from the city at the time. But about two weeks later, after it received a public information request, the city released a $126,000 mutual termination agreement that it had signed with Mulhall.

The issue generated public scrutiny and prompted the grand jury report. The reasons behind Mulhall’s departure are still unknown because of privacy laws.

On Tuesday, the city gave its response, which was signed by City Manager Wade McKinney and approved by the Atascadero City Council.

The city agreed with three of the grand jury’s five findings: that no illegal activity took place, the city initially omitted Mulhall’s settlement payment and there was a disparity between Mulhall’s employment agreement and the city’s actual process for conducting annual employee evaluations.

The city disagreed with two findings: that Mulhall’s settlement was released only in response to a public information request and that the city’s process for disclosing the settlement exposed it to transparency complaints.

The city disagreed with the first statement because it included other media not part of the request in its reply. City Attorney Brian Pierik said by doing so city officials “went beyond” what they were required to do.

The city disagreed with the second statement because Pierik said the city was required to respect an employee’s privacy in employment matters and follow a notification process with Mulhall.

The grand jury also made two recommendations, which the city agreed to. Those were to review two city processes: how personnel decisions are publicly disclosed and how its employee annual review process is conducted.

The latter refers to the grand jury finding that Mulhall was entitled to a written summary of his performance when he only received one written review at the end of 2009.

City officials will review the city’s public disclosure of personnel decisions on an ongoing basis, according to the response, while the employee performance review issue will be included in a larger review of its personnel laws to go before council this fall.

Civil grand jury reports are not legally binding and only act to inform.