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The firing of a long-time police lieutenant in Petaluma is likely just the start of a lengthy legal battle that could end up publicly airing internal strife that may have contributed to the termination.

Dave Sears, one of the department's highest-ranking officers since 1999, was fired last week by City Manager John Brown, the day before Brown left for a six-week vacation.

Sears said the department accused him of "dishonesty," but he declined to be more specific on the advice of his attorney. He said it did not involve allegations of inappropriate behavior, theft or improper conduct with any members of the public or the department.

Several city employees contacted by The Press Democrat would only speak off record, saying they feared retribution if identified publicly. Many said there is a general fear among employees that if Sears — who is widely respected for his even temper and fairness — can be fired, so could they.

Contacted at home after his dismissal, Sears, 47, said he will fight the order.

"This is about clearing my name and reputation," he said.

The complaint originated within the department, not from a citizen's report, sources said.

Sears is represented by Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen, a Sacramento law firm that specializes in employment law and labor law. His attorney, Chris Miller, didn't return messages seeking comment.

Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun would only confirm that Sears no longer works for the city. He would not discuss the process that will begin should Sears challenge the decision.

"I can only say he has a right to appeal," he said.

Police Chief Pat Williams has not returned several calls seeking further information.

But others who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss it said it could take 18 months or longer to conclude.

The case of a Santa Rosa police captain fired in 2008 is still pending with appeals in state and federal courts, Santa Rosa City Attorney Caroline Fowler said. Then-Capt. Jamie Mitchel sued the city after his dismissal, challenging an arbitration ruling in the city's favor.

In Petaluma, sources said, Sears was notified he was a target of an investigation late last year.

The city hired an outside investigator, employment attorney Patricia Elliot of Los Gatos, to conduct the investigation. Earlier, Brown said the city was conducting an internal investigation.

Williams recommended Sears be fired in June. The lieutenant was suspended on June 12 with pay.

An internal appeals process led to a hearing before Fire Chief Larry Anderson, who affirmed Williams' recommendation.

Brown fired Sears at the end of the day Thursday.

City employees, depending on their position, typically have a right to arbitration or a hearing before a personnel board. Petaluma's city charter provides for a three-member City Council-appointed personnel board to hear an employee's challenge to discipline.

However, the board has been inactive for about a decade. The last appointment made to the board occurred in 2001, according to city records.

Sears would only say that he intends to challenge the action.

"I'm disappointed it's come this far," he said. "My attorney wants us to proceed onward, and I'm going to listen to him."

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. Recently, Sears had been 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 Williams was hired from Southern California last year. Fish served as interim chief for three years, during which time he recommended eliminating Sears' captain's position and demotion 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 rival from consideration of the top 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.)