Council Says It Avoided Potential $3 Million Lawsuit by Settling with Dupuis
Laguna Beach City Council voted unanimously to waive the confidentiality and attorney-client privilege of certain closed sessions held July and August regarding former city manager Shohreh Dupuis’ claims of alleged harassment by council member George Weiss and the resulting settlement during its Nov. 7 meeting.
However, city council voted against the release of attorney Barbara Raileanu’s entire investigative report due to concerns it would expose the names of city employees who contributed to the investigation – potentially putting them in jeopardy.
Mark Orgill and Weiss voted in favor of its release, citing public transparency as paramount.
Out of seven claims Dupuis made toward Weiss, city-hired attorney Barbara Raileanu, who led the investigation, found “no discrimination on the basis of sex or national origin,” according to a public abbreviated memo released on Oct. 30. However, there was significant exposure to litigation, a possible retaliation claim, among other claims that would subject the city to more than $400,00 in legal fees, Mayor Bob Whalen explained.
In Raileanu’s memo, Dupuis alleged that Weiss became “aggressive, agitated and intimidating” during a meeting in July or August of 2021. The report also stated that Weiss became angry, raised his voice and pounded his fist on Dupuis’s desk in a separate Oct. 22 meeting. Finally, it states Weiss criticized Dupuis “openly, repeatedly and relentlessly” in his personal newsletter and in open city council meetings.
Raileanu’s findings reported these allegations to be sustained.
The investigation did not find that Weiss’ behavior towards the former city manager during the summer 2021 meeting to be based on Dupuis’ protected class. It also denied the allegation that, during that same meeting, Weiss had a “wet stain on the groin area of (his) pants due to inappropriate conduct.”
The memo also found Dupuis’s claim that Weiss said the Feb. 9 vandalism of her home was an “inside job” to distract from the release of records regarding Dupuis receiving a traffic citation to be unsubstantiated.
Finally, the investigation rejected Dupuis’s allegation that Weiss encouraged the public to make demeaning, hostile or unprofessional remarks about Dupuis in public forums, including social media.
“On July 18, Dupuis’s attorney Craig Scott sent a letter to Phil Kohn, the city attorney at the time, saying, ‘I’m requesting a settlement of 33 months of salary, plus attorney’s fees and a retirement from the city. And if not, I’m going to file a $3 million claim against the city,'” Whalen said during his summary of the related closed sessions.
During the July 24 closed session meeting, the city made Dupuis a counteroffer of 18 months of severance pay instead of the 33 she proposed. A week later, council members were updated on the investigation during another closed session meeting.
“Paying (Dupuis) roughly $450,000 was the least expensive way for us to get out of a situation that we found ourselves in, which was the threat of litigation, a $3 million claim, and I’m still convinced that it was the right decision from a purely financial standpoint,” Whalen said. “Reaching a settlement, putting it behind us, moving forward to select a new city manager and getting back to conducting the business of the city,” Whalen said. “If we had a lawsuit going on for two years with depositions from council members and city officials, it would have been a huge distraction. I didn’t think it was worth that. I think it would have been a negative for the city and the community.”
Weiss denied all of Dupuis’ allegations and thanked residents for their support throughout the investigation, adding that council members are not city figureheads but instead exist to serve residents.
“Asking meaningful questions that test the presumptions of the city manager and staff is not harassment,” Weiss said. “It’s called functional representative local government. Pointing out misrepresentations or omissions of information by the city manager is not bullying. It is accountability that supports informed decision-making by the council.”
At the Nov. 7 meeting, Weiss and members of the public remained dissatisfied with the partial release outcome, calling for full transparency and the entire investigative report to be made public.
Retired First Amendment and freedom of information attorney Jim Grossberg said Weiss wants the entire record of the matter made public so residents can evaluate the facts.
“California law requires complete release of the information if the public interest and disclosure outweigh any privacy interests served by secrecy,” he told council before the votes were cast. “As a consistent line of court decisions establish, this is just such a case. No blanket grant of anonymity to witnesses, or anyone else, is permitted, giving the compelling public interest in disclosure.”
“Alternatively, council can delegate the decision whether to release the records by appointing a well-qualified neutral attorney acceptable to all council members,” Grossberg went on to say. “No other alternative will dispel the cloud over council.”
Shohreh Dupuis officially left her position as city manager on Sept. 1. The now-retired city attorney Phil Kohn announced the decision after the city council met in a closed session on Thursday morning, Aug. 24.