City Manager Termination

The City is now out more than $150,000 and down one senior management employee after its decision, announced at the Feb. 16 council meeting, to terminate city manager Christa “CJ” Johnson without cause, four days after her one-year anniversary. Personnel matters are legally shrouded in a fair amount of secrecy, but we can report key facts, based on the city attorney’s statements that brought the Council out of closed session on Feb. 16, and records the City provided to the Sandpiper.


The Council had previously conducted a performance evaluation of the city manager at the six-month mark. Indications are that it was a positive evaluation, since it was on the Council’s closed session agenda only once, and the city attorney announced “no reportable action” from that agenda item on Aug. 3, 2020.


The one-year performance evaluation was a different story with a new council majority in place. The evaluation first appeared on a closed session agenda on Jan. 27, 2021, and again on closed session agendas for Feb. 1, Feb. 3, Feb. 9, and Feb. 16, with “dismissal/ release” added to the description for the Feb. 16th session. The employment agreement signed by Johnson and the City provides that the city manager may not be terminated within 90 days of a council election, and there had been such an election on November 3. We can assume the termination decision was made during the February 3 closed session, since Johnson’s attorney sent an email to the City Attorney on February 5, asking for payments beyond what was due to Johnson under the terms of the employment agreement, including payout of unused sick leave, $3000 for attorney’s fees, and a laptop. The email asserted there were “facts suggesting members of the City Council are in substantial breach” of provisions in the employment agreement that prohibit council members from interfering with the execution of the powers and duties of the Manager. In the council:city manager form of government adopted by Del Mar, the city council sets policy and the city manager implements the policy. Councilmembers are prohibited from directing staff efforts without the city manager’s approval. If this was the core issue resulting in CJ’s termination, current council members should review the City Charter and the Municipal Code.


Termination without cause, per the employment agreement, entitled Johnson to S120,000 (six months of her base pay), plus six months of continued health benefits, and payment for any unused vacation and management leave. (We don’t have information on the dollar amounts
for the health insurance or unused leave.) The agreement did not entitle the Manager to payment for unused sick leave or attorney’s fees. However, payment of $24,880 for accrued sick leave and up to $7000 in attorney’s fees was announced at the February 16 council meeting in the City Attorney’s report-out from closed session under an agenda item listed as “significant exposure to litigation.” Presumably, the allegation of breach of contract by unspecified council members gave Johnson an opening to negotiate payments beyond those provided for in the employment agreement, resulting in an additional payment of $31,880, plus a laptop.


The Council appointed Ashley Jones, who already carries two job titles – City Clerk and Administrative Services Director – as Interim City Manager, bypassing Assistant City Manager Kristen Crane without explanation. This leaves the City even more short-staffed, after COVID-19 related revenue drops required staff layoffs and furloughs – all while the City is challenged with significant workloads, especially with regard to April housing deadlines that will soon determine whether we are in compliance with state law or face significant consequences for non-compliance.