Santa Ana officials are arguing that police union president Gerry Serrano’s lawsuit against the city is nothing more than an intimidation tactic designed to silence City Hall while he aims to spike his pension.
City Hall’s return-fire comes in the form of a Feb. 22 anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) motion which requests three claims be stricken from Serrano’s six-count lawsuit, in which he alleges spying and interference by police and city officials into his union duties.
It’s city officials’ first substantial response in court countering Serrano’s lawsuit.
And they want him to cover Santa Ana’s legal costs fighting the case.
The police union leader’s sizing up of City Hall has played out publicly for some time now, yet the city’s motion heightens its discord with a man who leads a union representing hundreds of police officers and department employees in town.
Serrano did not respond to phone and email requests for comment Monday.
The city’s motion argues the legal battle stems from Serrano’s desire to amp up his publicly-funded pension, a goal they say is unreasonable.
“All of these issues […] directly relate to Plaintiff Serrano’s pension issue,” reads the city’s filing.
Serrano’s already one of the highest compensated employees at City Hall – all without doing any work directly for the city, under the terms of his leadership of the union in its labor contract with Santa Ana.
City spokesperson Paul Eakins declined to comment on the motion beyond a Feb. 28 news release from the city.
Officials have said Serrano’s request to count his special union pay toward his retirement benefits, if honored, would constitute an abuse of public resources.
“We understand that Mr. Serrano has expectations for an increase in his pension by up to $60,000 per year,” wrote the city’s top attorney, Sonia Carvalho, in a 2021 letter obtained by Voice of OC last year through a public records request. “It is simply against public policy for an individual to receive a taxpayer-funded, public pension for work that was not performed for a public agency.”
His request was denied in a 2020 ruling by the state’s public employee retirement system, CalPERS, and – when Serrano appealed that decision – yielded a similar ruling against him this month by an administrative judge.
Voice of OC and a local Anaheim watchdog also reported this month that Serrano turned to California State Treasurer Fiona Ma for help in finding an exemption for him from existing state law – and that Ma indeed offered assistance.
Ma told Voice of OC she assisted Serrano because his pension issue stems from a larger, statewide problem of guaranteeing stronger compensation for public employee union leaders who commit their time to advocate for fair wages and contracts with public agencies.
SLAPP suits are seen as efforts to intimidate or silence critics and opponents by drowning them with legal costs until they abandon their stance.
That’s what city officials consider to be the point of Serrano’s lawsuit filed last year.
Voice of OC’s chief public records litigator, attorney Kelly Aviles, said “cities are more and more frequently” considering anti-SLAPP motions in response to lawsuits against them seeking to stop the disclosure of records.
In his 2021 lawsuit, Serrano cites the “disclosure of confidential records” by the city in response to public records requests as one of his grievances.
“Sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly,” Aviles said, adding “I’ve seen situations where someone is rightfully challenging actions of government and cities file an anti-SLAPP to throw those suits out as well.”
Anti-SLAPP motions are usually a legal measure seeking to block intimidation tactics through the courts on the basis of the First Amendment and are usually employed by journalists and local government watchdogs.
Several states have passed anti-SLAPP laws, including California.
“Furthermore, (Serrano’s) claims are factually and legally unsupported,” the City of Santa Ana’s motion reads.
It goes on later to state that Serrano’s lawsuit arguments are “legally untenable.”
One target of Serrano’s ire, Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin, has also filed a separate anti-SLAPP motion against Serrano on the same grounds.
The city’s motion also includes written declarations by two members of City Hall’s top brass: City Manager Kristine Ridge and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho.
Ridge, in her declaration, says that Serranos’ actions over the past couple of years have “crossed the line.”
“Ever since CalPERS began to investigate whether the subject elements of Plaintiff Serrano’s compensation qualify for inclusion in his pension calculation, Plaintiff Serrano and [the police union] have made many complaints against officials and employees of the City of Santa Ana. The City of Santa Ana has investigated or is in the process of investigating the complaints,” Ridge said in her declaration.
In her declaration, Carvahlo denied Serrano’s assertion of a “vendetta” against Serrano on her part.
The city wants to strike the first, third, and fourth causes of action in Serrano’s lawsuit, which in some cases allege the city interfered with Serrano’s duties as union president in violation of the state’s law governing public agency and labor union relations, the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.
Those sections of Serrano’s complaint, prefaced by more than 90 paragraphs of background information detailing alleged city wrongdoing such as spying and reprisal, also claim that the city punished Serrano for disclosing information by subjecting him to investigations and punitive action.
City officials say they want Serrano to pay back the public dollars spent fighting what they call a frivolous lawsuit.
“The City of Santa Ana and the Officer defendants will be seeking substantial monetary sanctions against Mr. Serrano and SAPOA upon prevailing on these pending anti-SLAPP motions,” reads a Monday news release from the city.
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