San Clemente City Councilwoman Laura Ferguson – who used to work as the city’s public information officer – is considering suing the city after her fellow council members voted to censure her last month over releasing public records to the public.
For most of the past year, Ferguson – an outspoken conservative Republican – has served as the council’s de facto leader after former mayor Dan Bane resigned to move out of state. She was replaced earlier this month, when the new council voted to appoint Kathy Ward as mayor, with Gene James as mayor pro tem.
A longtime public information officer for the city now turned elected official, she has repeatedly clashed with city staff over disagreements on transparency issues. She has publicly called for new rules requiring more disclosure, and has released confidential records to the public multiple times, along with publicly criticizing members of city staff for their conduct during her time in office.
Those clashes were what ultimately led to her censure last month, after the city council voted 3-1, with Ferguson opposed, to disown her conduct. While a censure carries no consequences, it “represents the formal opinion of the city council and therefore carries weight in the public arena,” according to city attorney Scott Smith, in a report to the council.
But Ferguson is saying she may take legal action depending on the city council’s discussion in closed session for Tuesday night over whether or not they will release records surrounding the censure process.
Following her censure, Ferguson filed a public records request with the city for any and all communications between the rest of the council, their legal representation and several former city managers who she clashed with.
City staff declined to turn over a large portion of those records, saying that any communication between the council and their legal representation would have to be vetted by a third party legal firm before Ferguson could review them.
Ferguson asked, with the support of newly arrived Councilman Steven Knoblock, to have the council discuss waiving their privilege and release the records.
In an email to Ferguson, Smith said the discussion over privilege would be held in closed session at the council’s request, and said that the city did not have to specifically state they were discussing Ferguson’s case on the agenda under transparency laws.
But in that same email chain, Knoblock said he thought that the discussion was intended for an open session, calling into question whether the council voted for a closed or open conversation on the issue.
The issue is still set for a discussion in closed session, but Ferguson’s lawyers were allowed to attach a 114-page document with their complaints in the process, largely focused on what they saw as violations of public meeting laws and regulations due to the fact the city does not have its own censure policy in place.
Ferguson’s legal team has also repeatedly criticized Smith’s work during the censure process, claiming he sided with the council majority instead of remaining an impartial observer: the council majority was represented by Cristina Talley, a former employee of Best Best & Krieger, the firm Smith works for that represents the city.
Brad Malamud, one of the lawyers on Ferguson’s team, has repeatedly said he hopes to see the issue taken to court and overturned, calling it “reminiscent of Washington political theater.”
Smith is charged to report any actionable information that comes out of the closed session on the Tuesday night meeting, and Fergsuon said she will decide from there whether or not to file her suit.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.