San Clemente City Council members are set to get rid of the loyalty oath they have to sign to handle the city’s most sensitive documents at tonight’s meeting. 

Since its adoption in November of last year, the city’s records rules have come under near constant fire from the public and members of the dais, but the new council appears to have reversed course on the new system. 

The former city council chose to set up a virtual lockbox that would store records including the city’s ongoing lawsuits, personnel files and other records the city isn’t required to review publicly. 

The system included what multiple council members referred to as a “loyalty oath,” requiring they sign a waiver promising not to release any of the records before accessing them and stating it was against the law to publish records without the consent of a council majority. 

The new system was put in place just weeks after Councilwoman Laura Ferguson released a city commissioned voter poll that asked residents whether they would support a new tax to protect the city’s beaches from climate change. As the city’s former public information officer, Ferguson said the city had no legal right to keep the poll out of the public eye. 

“It was created to muzzle me, so I wouldn’t have information,” Ferguson said at the council’s March 1 meeting. “I’m not fully informed anymore. That not only hurts my ability to make decisions for the best of the city, but it also really diminishes my ability to be the voice for the people that I represent.” 

Ferguson was also censured for her decision to release those records and for her criticisms of city management, primarily city attorney Scott Smith who she publicly clashes with on a regular basis. She refused to sign the waiver, and says she has been denied records for seven meetings since then. 

The revisions will allow council members to access the records in hard copies or online, and replaces the waiver with an advisement of the Brown Act, California’s chief public meeting law that sets out strict guidelines for what can be released to the public. 

The new warning still discourages council members from releasing the information, but removed the line specifically stating the information may not be released to “any other person or entity,” and removes the signature requirement. It also includes a reminder that only a vote by the full council can lift the attorney-client privilege on documents within the lockbox.  

While there isn’t set to be any discussion on the issue at tonight’s meeting, council members discussed the changes for nearly an hour at a special meeting earlier this month. Councilmen Steve Knoblock and Gene James asked for a review of the policy and the city’s use of CapLinked, the software system that manages confidential records. 

Knoblock was the first to suggest the shift from a signature to a simple notice, but the council majority agreed and repeatedly stated their goal was to make sure everyone got the documents they needed. 

“I think an advisement of the government code is probably sufficient. I want to get on and get past this, and make sure that everybody has access to the records,” said Councilman Chris Duncan. 

Knoblock also asked if there was a way to remove a second waiver requiring that the city indemnify CapLinked from any legal issues that should come from managing the records, but city staff said that could not be changed under the company’s rules. 

The council meets tonight at 6:00 p.m., and can be viewed on the city’s YouTube page here. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

BREAKING TEXT ALERTS

Subscribe today to receive Voice of OC’s breaking news text messages (free beyond your standard messaging rates).

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.