San Clemente City Council members on Tuesday night threw out a loyalty pledge they needed to sign to review the city’s most sensitive documents, ending a months-long debate over who has access to the city’s secrets. 

Since its introduction in November last year, the policy has come under near constant criticism from the public and multiple council members. The pledge is now being replaced by a warning notice reminding city leaders the records should be kept secret instead of compelling it.  

The policy created a virtual lockbox, storing the city’s most sensitive records, including information on all ongoing lawsuits, labor and property negotiations and other issues the city is not required to discuss publicly. 

Council members were required to sign a notice that said all information in the lockbox was “to be kept strictly confidential and not to be disclosed to any other person or entity.” That notice was enacted by the former council, with Mayor Kathy Ward and Councilman Gene James the only current serving members who voted in favor of the policy. 

“It is unlawful to disclose, to any person not entitled to receive it, confidential information that has been acquired by being present in a closed session of the city council…without express authorization of the city council,” the waiver stated.  

The software also tracked anyone handling the documents, meaning city staff and the council would now have a record of any time someone opened sealed files. 

The pledge was introduced just weeks after Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, the city’s former public information officer, released a taxpayer-funded voter poll gauging public opinion on a new tax to protect the city’s coastline. 

Ferguson argued the poll did not qualify as a confidential document and her actions were entirely legal, while city staff and her council colleagues said it was protected by attorney-client privilege. 

Ferguson was ultimately censured for that and her repeated public criticisms of city staff, and refused to sign into the new system. Citing that ordinance, city staff did not provide her with confidential documents for the next seven council meetings, according to Ferguson. 

“There are remedies in place in the gov code for elected officials that do give out confidential documents inappropriately or illegally, and any governing body can go ahead and take the appropriate measures written out in the law,” Ferguson said at a meeting on March 1. “That wasn’t done to me because I haven’t released anything illegally but I was punished for it in a censure hearing.” 

Ferguson was the only council member who refused to sign the waiver, although Councilman Steve Knoblock also questioned it when he joined the council late last year. Since then, Ferguson has regularly mentioned the problem at council meetings, pointing out how it limited her ability to vet candidates for the open city manager job.

The waiver will be replaced by an advisement when logging into the system, restating that the release of closed session records specified in the Brown Act, California’s chief public meetings law, is illegal. Council members can now also request the records in hard copies if they do not wish to use the online portal. 

While the council did not discuss the item Tuesday night, the changes were the chief discussion at a special meeting of the panel earlier this month, where the body unanimously voted to adopt the new system, repeatedly stating they wanted everyone to get the records they need. 

“You know this is a document you have to handle with special care,” James said. “Lets get around this and put it behind us; lets get Laura the documents she needs.”  

With Tuesday’s final vote, the new policy becomes law, enabling renewed access to city records for the council. 

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

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