Fullerton City Manager Joe Felz had a “minor” driving accident early Wednesday morning after celebrating at election night parties in downtown Fullerton, leading to a series of phone calls among officers and Police Chief Dan Hughes.
A local blog about city politics, Friends For Fullerton’s Future, posted a memo from Hughes to the City Council about the incident.
Felz’ minivan ran over the curb in a residential neighborhood north of downtown about 1:30 a.m. and knocked down a young tree. The minivan had to be towed from the scene.
In the memo, Hughes said the watch commander telephoned him at home shortly after 1:30 a.m. for instructions on what to do. The watch commander described a “minor accident” and said the police sergeant on the scene “believed the city manager was emitting an odor of alcohol.”
According to his memo, Hughes told the watch commander he would call the sergeant at the scene and “have the field sergeant conduct a preliminary assessment by performing field sobriety tests and if the sergeant believed there was a level of intoxication that met the criteria to be a violation of the law, we would contact the CHP to investigate.”
The sergeant conducted a field sobriety test after suspecting Felz had been drinking, but apparently decided not to require a breathalyzer test, the memo said. The city manager was driven home and his damaged minivan was towed from the scene.
Voice of OC asked police officials and Councilman Greg Sebourn for a copy of the chief’s memo. Both declined to provide it. The police department referred reporters to the city attorney’s office which had not responded by 1 p.m. Thursday.
Sebourn, in a text message, said: “I cannot comment on a pending criminal investigation of a city employee.”
The department has also so far refused to let a reporter review or get details of the police report.
Neither Felz nor Hughes returned multiple calls from a Voice of OC reporter to discuss the issue. Hughes retires as police chief on Friday to take a job with Disneyland and Felz will name his temporary replacement.
City Councilman Bruce Whitaker said he never received the police chief’s memo and wants to be sure Felz got the same treatment as “John Q. Taxpayer.”
Whitaker said he spent time with Felz during his election night party at the JP23 BBQ & Smokehouse sports bar. Felz came in between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., bought Whitaker a congratulatory beer and got one for himself.
“He didn’t look drunk,” Whitaker said. City council candidate Jesus Silva said he saw Felz walking past Bourbon Street, a bar, around 11 p.m. election night.
“He didn’t look drunk to me,” Silva said.
Nonetheless, Whitaker said that he wants to know more about the case and why he wasn’t sent Hughes’ memo. Failure to include him could be a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, he said.
The controversy is an ironic climax to Hughes’ tenure as chief. He was promoted in 2011 to clean up the department following the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, by Fullerton police officers.
Among the changes he promoted was providing all officers with body cameras. Voice of OC has asked to review all of the video from the body cameras in the Felz incident. Again, a police spokesman said the request had to go through the city attorney’s office, which hadn’t responded by 1 p.m. Thursday.
The crash awakened one resident of the Glenwood Avenue neighborhood north of downtown Fullerton who looked outside and saw it was next door to her home.
“You could see it was a white minivan that had come up over the curb,” said Fullerton Community College adjunct law professor Barb Pollinger. She said about two-thirds of the car was stuck over the curb on the grass strip that runs parallel to the sidewalk.
“Then it started going forward and backward. Whoever was in it didn’t get out,” Pollinger said. “I’m thinking stolen car, drunk driver — I’m thinking a problem.”
She called 911. Before officers arrived the driver managed to get the minivan back onto the street and, even though it had a flat tire, started to drive away.
Pollinger said she heard the sound of “screeching” rubber as it tried to drive off, but it only got about three houses down the street before police arrived.
She didn’t go outside to see how police handled the incident but said when she left home Wednesday morning “you could see debris.” Someone cleaned it up later in the day. A reporter who visited the scene could see about a 180-foot-long dark trail leading down the street and away from the accident.
In his memo, Hughes said he called Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald “and informed her I was following the protocol of notifying the mayor about the contact with the city manager…”
“Her only instructions were to follow normal procedures,” Hughes wrote.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC intern. Please contact him at [email protected]