San Clemente City Councilwoman Laura Ferguson is suing her own city over access to fellow council members’ emails surrounding her censure last year.
The censure — a formal condemnation by her colleagues — came after Ferguson released a city-commissioned poll to the public, which examined whether or not voters would approve a ballot measure instituting a new tax to help protect the city’s coast.
While city staff insisted it was a confidential report, Ferguson said she saw no reason under public records law that allowed the city to withhold it, citing her years of experience as the city’s public information officer.
“I’m always of the opinion that unless it’s litigation or real estate matters … it’s safe to say virtually all information, including emails, is public record, subject to disclosure,” Ferguson said in a Monday phone interview. “If they’re going to subject me to a six hour hearing to humiliate and embarrass me, then I have a right to know why.”
The lawsuit specifically names the city as a defendant, along with Mayor Kathy Ward, City Manager Erik Sund, Councilman Gene James and former Councilman Chris Hamm, who finished up his term in office shortly after Ferguson’s censure.
Ferguson will be represented by Craig Alexander, a lawyer who specializes in public records lawsuits, and the city will be represented by Best Best & Krieger, their contracted law firm, which Ferguson also took issue with.
“Since BBK is involved, they’re basically defending their own advice and work product, they’re taking privilege to represent themselves. I find that to be very much a conflict,” Ferguson said.
Councilman Gene James said he was “perplexed,” by the objective of the lawsuit, and that Ferguson should spend her time responding to allegations of workplace harassment filed against her by city employees.
“I have reviewed documentation from the investigation and there were six attempts to have Ferguson be interviewed by the investigator in which she has refused to cooperate,” James said in a Monday text message. “This lawsuit appears to be nothing more than a distraction to direct attention away from this investigation and her pattern of abusive behavior.”
Mayor Kathy Ward, the only other remaining council member who censured Ferguson, did not return requests for comment.
City attorney Scott Smith declined to comment, saying he needed to speak with the council about the issue before he could make a statement.
Ferguson said the allegation that multiple city staffers had accused her of harassment was a “flat out lie,” and that she’d never been asked to speak about any of those issues by city staff or even learned what the complaints were.
She also said the rest of the council discussed the allegations in an unagendized closed session discussion at their Aug. 17 meeting, which she was not allowed to attend.
“It’s very perplexing to me, he says there’s all these allegations against me and yet they won’t tell me what’s been alleged against me, them being the council or the city attorney or the city manager,” Ferguson said. “That’s obviously a due process violation.”
This isn’t Ferguson’s first clash with the city over access to public records and freedom of speech.
Over her last three years in office, Ferguson has gotten into multiple public spats with city staff over what records should be made public.
In addition to releasing the poll, Ferguson also refused to use a records system implemented by city staff requiring council members sign a waiver to access confidential records, promising nothing within the lockbox would be released to the public.
Ultimately, her rejection of the system along with concerns from Councilman Steve Knoblock resulted in it being downgraded to a simple advisory not to release the records instead of a mandate.
The San Clemente City Council meets tonight, but is not scheduled to discuss the issue.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.