A former Petaluma police lieutenant who is challenging his termination has agreed to binding arbitration with the city that may forestall a lengthy, contentious -#8212; and potentially public -#8212; legal battle.

Dave Sears, one of the department's highest-ranking officers since 1999, was fired in August after he said an internal complaint accused him of dishonesty. He said the complaint didn't allege inappropriate behavior, theft or improper conduct with any members of the public or the department. He maintains his dismissal is unwarranted.

The agreement to go to arbitration likely will become public once it is formalized, which should be soon, said Sears' attorney, Chris Miller of Mastagni Holstedt Amick Miller - Johnsen of Sacramento.

The sides agreed to the process in lieu of an appeal before the city's personnel board, which Sears had a right to demand.

Petaluma's city charter provides for a three-member personnel board, appointed by the City Council, to hear certain employees' disciplinary challenges. But as Sears continued to appeal his case, city officials realized the board has been inactive for more than a decade. The last appointment made to the board occurred in 2001, according to city records.

City Manager John Brown wouldn't speak directly about the Sears case, but acknowledged that some employees have procedural rights to seek review before the personnel board as part of their union contracts. He said most of the contracts have been rewritten over the years to eliminate the provision.

"It never functioned except as the hearer of an appeal," he said. "Somewhere along the line, the city just let that go."

If Sears pressed his right, a board would have to be in place and ready to hear an appeal within 30 days.

The city opened an application process for the board, but no one has applied, Brown said. With the Sears arbitration agreement nearing formalization, reconstituting the board isn't necessary, Brown said.

Neither side would discuss a time frame for the arbitration process. Both parties agreed it would be held in secret, Miller said.

"It's akin to judicial procedure in that the parties typically are represented by counsel and the city will bear the burden of proving its case against Lt. Sears," he said.

Typically, an arbitration judge's decision can't be appealed by either side.

Sears was hired in 1999 after he'd been with the Benicia Police Department for 12 years. He worked in patrol, investigations, SWAT and the field-training program. Before his termination, Sears was handling administrative duties for the 90-member department, supervising the dispatch and records departments, claims and risk management, and budgeting.

He and Lt. Danny Fish were vying for the permanent chief's opening until Pat Williams was hired from Southern California in 2012. Fish served as interim chief for three years, during which time he recommended eliminating Sears' captain's position and demoting him to lieutenant as a cost-cutting move.

The recommendation, which was approved by the City Council, sparked criticism that Fish was trying to eliminate his top rival from consideration for the chief's job. Fish also returned to lieutenant rank after Williams was hired.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)