The First Amendment watchdog group Californians Aware is calling on the Garden Grove City Council to publicly apologize under threat of legal action for a violation of the state’s open meetings law, after it withheld an investigative report on the fire department last week.

At the Oct. 14 City Council meeting, council members received a written report investigating management issues in the fire department.  

The highly-anticipated report, which council members said would be disclosed at the meeting, details a lack of confidence in former Fire Chief Dave Barlag and frustration at the hiring of Mayor Bruce Broadwater’s son Jeremy as a firefighter. 

The issue arose when a Voice of OC reporter asked for the report at the meeting, City Clerk Kathy Bailor said it would be available the next morning at city hall.

The next day, Bailor acknowledged that the document was public but said the report would be available only after fire union representatives had received it, at the request of City Manager Matthew Fertal.

“My city manager has asked me not to release the report until the [fire] union receives it, as a courtesy to them,” Bailor said.

According to the Brown Act, agendas and other writings, except for those exempt from public disclosure, that distributed to the council should be available to the public upon request, without delay.

The reporter and other members of the public received the report by email at 4:30 pm, nearly a day after it was distributed to the council.

Terry Francke, general counsel for CalAware and a consultant for Voice of OC, has issued the city a cease and desist letter demanding the council make an unconditional commitment at an open, public meeting not to repeat such violations of the law.

Should the city council fail to respond within 30 days, Voice of OC and CalAware are prepared to take legal action to prohibit further violation of public records law and for the reimbursement of any legal fees.

Earlier this year, Voice of OC won a long-standing court battle with the county of Orange over the denial of more than 177 pages of documents related to the alleged harassment of county employees.

The county was ultimately forced to release the records and pay more than $120,905 in taxpayer dollars to Voice of OC.

City Clerk Kathy Bailor said the city attorney is currently reviewing issue, and declined to comment.

When asked for comment, Broadwater said the issue “is not a big deal” and said he didn’t even have time to read the report until he went home that evening.

“I don’t think I’ve heard anyone going to jail for a violation of the Brown Act. It doesn’t become public information until the Mayor reads it,” Broadwater said. “This is so petty it’s unbelievable. No one has done anything intentionally wrong. If government runs precisely as you want it to run – it would stop. It would quit running altogether.”

Bao Nguyen, Broadwater’s opponent who is running on a reform ticket about transparency at city hall, declined to comment.

Councilman Chris Phan, a county deputy district attorney, said that he has not read the Brown Act and would not feel comfortable opining on the situation. 

“You have to ask [Fertal] or [Bailor] why they did what they did. From my opinion, I believe the report was given to you in a timely manner. I haven’t read the law…so unless we took 2 or 3, days…it’s a matter of different opinion as far as how quickly stuff will turn over,” Phan said.

Other council members did not respond to requests for comment.

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