Manhattan Beach dismisses City Manager Mark Danaj without cause

hree weeks after placing Manhattan Beach City Manager Mark Danaj on leave, the City Council fired him late Wednesday night.

Danaj, 48, will leave the beach town’s top administrative post effective immediately, Mayor Amy Howorth announced after a closed session of the City Council.

“After careful consideration, the Manhattan Beach City Council, by a 5-0 vote, has exercised its option to terminate the employment agreement with City Manager Mark Danaj,” she said. “The action is effective immediately and is without cause under the terms of his contract.”

City officials offered no explanation for the firing, calling it a “personnel matter.”

“The City Council respects the privacy of its employees and former employees,” Howorth said. “Since this is a personnel matter, there will be no further comment.”

The council decision to let Danaj go comes 3 1/2 years after he was tapped to bring change and tech savvy to City Hall. He previously served as assistant city manager in Fremont, a suburb in the Silicon Valley.

Danaj’s response

In prepared statement Thursday morning Danaj reiterated his firing was without cause.

“I was always confident this council’s inquiry would lead to a finding of no wrong doing. In fact, when I was originally hired, I insisted that ICMA’s professional code of ethics be incorporated into my contract. This separation without cause speaks for itself,” he stated.

ICMA is the International City/County Management Association, a nonprofit that promotes ethics in local government.

Danaj went on to list accomplishments during his tenure including reaffirming the city’s AAA-bond rating, building the Marine Avenue skate park, improving resident engagement with City Hall and shepherding the Roundhouse Aquarium public private partnership with the Harrison Greenberg Foundation.

“It has been my pleasure to serve Manhattan Beach these three and a half years,” stated Danaj. “I thank all the employees of the city who every day make these things and many more happen.”

Up to one-year severance

Because Danaj was dismissed without cause, he will receive up to a year’s worth of his $250,000 annual salary and benefits, according to his contract that runs through June 2020.

The council put him on leave in a special meeting Dec. 14, but offered no public explanation. Finance Director Bruce Moe was named acting city manager.

Danaj’s attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, accused city leaders of punishing him because he pushed back against their decision to eliminate a high-ranking—and high-paying—position that he created and filled with a former colleague.

Nadine Nader, who also worked in Fremont, was hired as assistant city manager in Manhattan Beach in September 2014. She was given a $200,000 salary and a $2.3 million low-interest home loan, which drew criticism.

Nader is is starting a new job in Santa Clara this month and her position in Manhattan Beach was recently eliminated.

Wilkinson said Danaj did not face sexual misconduct allegations.

“He feels very strongly it’s important for people to understand that he did not act in an inappropriate way,” she said. “This is a man of the highest integrity who simply wants the best for the city. This has nothing to do with any sexual harassment.”

City manager turnover

Danaj was hired in May 2014, six months after former City Manager Dave Carmany was fired amid allegations of misconduct.

In 2009, Geoff Dolan resigned after 15 years when an anonymous letter surfaced accusing him of inappropriate sexual behavior at a staff retreat.

Danaj received a $1.7 million low-interest home loan to live in Manhattan Beach with his wife and two children. His contract was renewed in 2015.

Under the housing assistance agreement, Danaj has one year to pay back the principal and interest on the home loan. City Attorney Quinn Barrow said it is his understanding that Danaj is not done paying off the mortgage.

The City Council will discuss beginning a search for a replacement at its next meeting, Barrow said.

Danaj’s tenure in Manhattan Beach saw the implementation of a citywide smoking ban and an ambitious, $1.3 million effort to update zoning guidelines for the changing downtown area.

In 2014, he proposed the creation of four executive positions with salaries totaling nearly $1 million, but backed off the idea amid publish backlash.

His critics included City Council members elected in March 2017, who campaigned on cracking down on overspending on consultants and high salaries.

Latest departure

Danaj’s departure marks the third announcement of a high-ranking official leaving City Hall in recent months.

Police Chief Eve Irvine will be sworn in to lead the Torrance Police Department next week. She will be replaced by longtime Manhattan Beach Police Capt. Derrick Abell.

In October, Manhattan Beach Fire Chief Robert Espinosa announced he would retire at the end of 2017. But with Irvine leaving and Danaj’s future uncertain, he agreed to stay on for another six months.

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