Questions continue to swirl around Fullerton City Manager Joe Felz’s election night car crash, with a councilman and residents voicing their displeasure during Tuesday’s City Council meeting about the city’s lack of transparency in the wake of the incident.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning (Nov. 9) after attending election night parties, Felz crashed his minivan in a residential neighborhood north of downtown – driving it over a curb and into a tree. When police responded to the scene, they smelled alcohol on Felz but did not give him a breathalyzer test.
A police sergeant conducted a field sobriety test and apparently determined Felz was not drunk, according to a memo Police Chief Dan Hughes sent to some City Council members later that day.
(Click here to read Chief Dan Hughes’ memo)
Yet City Attorney Dick Jones acknowledged at Tuesday’s council meeting that a criminal investigation is ongoing and Felz is on personal leave for at least the next two weeks. Jones also said the City Council authorized the hiring of an independent investigator to look into the situation as a personnel matter, but offered no further information.
When asked Wednesday morning by a Voice of OC reporter why there would still be an ongoing criminal investigation into a minor traffic accident that happened more than a week ago, Councilman Bruce Whitaker said he has no idea.
“That’s a very good question — we’re completely in the dark,” Whitaker said, adding that Jones told the council during the closed-session portion of Tuesday’s meeting that council members don’t have a right to more information. “Everything is about putting the wraps on it.”
Whitaker, who has been outspoken about the incident since he first heard about it last Wednesday, said he didn’t get Hughes’ memo until a TV reporter emailed it to him later that day. And it wasn’t until yesterday, when Councilwoman Jan Flory forwarded him an email containing the memo sent by Hughes to the rest of the council, that Whitaker found out why Hughes didn’t send it to him.
“Joe (Felz) has not had the opportunity to discuss with Councilmember Whitaker so he asked that I delay sending it to him until he has an opportunity to do so,” read the email from Hughes, who last week left the city to take a job at Disneyland.
“I’m very disturbed about that,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker said Felz did call him the day after the crash and said he lost control of the car because he was fidgeting with loose wires underneath the steering column.
With Felz on leave for an undetermined amount of time, City Council Tuesday night appointed Human Resources Director Gretchen Beatty as the acting city manager. Felz’s performance review was listed as an item on the meeting’s close-session agenda, but Whitaker said the review had been scheduled before last week’s incident.
The appointment of Beatty was on recommendation of Jones in the council’s closed session meeting, Whitaker said. Due to time constraints in the closed session, Whitaker said they didn’t have a lot of time to think about the decision. but he added the council could change Beatty’s appointment if needed.
“I don’t think there was any intention of it being a long-term position,” Whitaker said.
Meanwhile, the city has denied a request from Voice of OC for copies of the police report and footage from body cameras worn by officers at the scene. Jones cited the ongoing criminal investigation as the city’s reason for not releasing the records.
“The matter will be reviewed by the Fullerton Police Department and they will then forward that information to the District Attorney’s office for their review,” Jones said during the meeting. “During that time period all these documents will … remain confidential because of the criminal investigation.”
Jones added that Felz could sue for damages if they were to release information, and the council has to weigh public employee rights versus the public’s right to know. “It’s a very difficult process when you’re dealing with a public employee,” he said.
Whitaker said Felz can’t sue for damages since the events of that night aren’t in the scope of his employment. “In the end, I don’t think anyone is ever damaged by the truth. And getting the truth out is an important thing,” Whitaker said.
Residents who attended the meeting were not happy with the legal reasons given for not releasing the police report or body camera footage.
“I think it was an accident. I think everything after that was intentional indiscretions. I think that’s where integrity comes in,” said Barb Pollinger, who witnessed Felz trying to drive off after hitting the tree while she was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher.
“I think in today’s political climate of mistrust … I think it’s important that our government and our leaders be trustworthy. I don’t see accountability here,” Pollinger said.
Pollinger went on to say that the public has an expectation of higher standards of public officials. “I just don’t see that happening here.”
Other residents echoed Pollinger’s sentiments.
“Everyone seems to be stonewalling every aspect of this,” Joshua Ferguson said. “That’s usually code for ‘we’re going to bury it for as long as we can and then maybe sweep it under the rug later.’”
Residents Jane Rands and Matt Leslie cited the Felz incident as a good example of why the police department needs a civilian oversight committee.
Other residents said that the police department violated its own policies. Attorney Sean Paden read aloud various police department policies that allow officers to arrest a person if officers believe he or she has been drinking, especially in the case of an accident.
“We know for a fact that Felz was drinking that night,” Paden said, citing Hughes’ memo to the council as proof. “We should know what happened at the scene, but we don’t because we’re not getting the transparency that we as taxpayers … have a right to know.”