The city of Westminster must make public a legal claim against the city filed by former Police Chief Kevin Baker, according to a ruling issued late Wednesday afternoon by Judge Walter Schwarm, in response to a Voice of OC lawsuit.
“Citizens clearly have the right to know whether their cities have incurred any legal obligations or violations. A claim from the police chief is among the highest order of documents that the public needs to see,” said Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana, Jr.
“It is extremely heartening to see that Judge Schwarm agrees and has upheld the public’s right to know,” Santana said.
The Westminster City Council, which has not yet met in closed session to discuss the ruling, could decide to appeal it.
"The City respectfully disagrees with the Court’s ruling and is evaluating its options regarding an appeal," said Tarquin Preziosi, the attorney for the city.
Attorney Kelly Aviles represented Voice of OC in the case. The case marks the third time in three years that Voice of OC has won Orange County court cases requiring government agencies to disclose public records.
In 2014, Voice of OC won a law suit against the County of Orange over records related to the investigation into former county Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante, who was convicted of committing multiple sex crimes against women who worked for him.
In March this year, in a separate lawsuit, a judge granted Voice of OC email records related to county Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s handcuffing of an evangelist at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant.
It is not clear when Baker’s claim against the city will be released.
For more than a year, the city has fought disclosure of the 14-page complaint, which was filed in April 2016. Information about the contents of the claim, and what caused Baker to file it, have not been made public. The city settled the claim for $500,000 and required Baker to sign a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement.
Voice of OC filed a lawsuit in September 2016 to compel the release of the police chief’s claim.
Baker served as police chief from 2012 until he retired quietly, after settlement of his claim, in May 2016.
The city argued that Baker’s claim – which was unsigned -- was sent to the city by his attorney, Dennis Wagner, during mediation. Documents and correspondence exchanged during mediation are confidential.
Schwarm’s ruling, however, agreed with Voice of OC’s argument that because Wagner and the city had not communicated for more than ten days, per the evidence code, mediation had already ended by the time the claim was sent.
The ruling denied disclosure of thirteen other records, mostly email correspondence.
The city already is dealing with legal fees from a 2011 federal discrimination lawsuit, in which a federal jury awarded three Latino police officers $3.3 million to settle their claim that they were discriminated and retaliated against because of their race.
After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the city’s appeal of the lawsuit in October, the city council sought to appeal that decision through a panel of judges known as an en banc. The Ninth Circuit denied the city a hearing.
The city has spent at least $1.9 million defending the discrimination lawsuit, including the costs of the appeal, according to Acting City Clerk Marian Contreras. That figure doesn’t include the attorney’s fees for the three officers that the city will likely be on the hook for.
At least six other employees, including Baker, have filed claims or lawsuits against the city since 2011. The increase in legal activity caught the eye of the city’s insurance pool, the California Insurance Pool Authority, which recently raised the city’s general liability insurance deductible from $350,000 to $500,000.
In late October, Brian Perez, one of the three Hispanic police officers in the federal discrimination lawsuit, filed a separate lawsuit against the city alleging he was unfairly denied promotions and special assignments after returning from military service.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.