San Clemente City Councilmembers unanimously agreed to pull down over 20 public comments posted on the city website after concerns came up that the emails exposed personal information of residents.
The comments have been online for well over a year, ever since the censure of Councilwoman Laura Ferguson in November 2020.
While the city received 44 written comments on the issue, only half of those were posted to the city website, but none of the information including the senders’ email addresses and in some cases personal addresses were not redacted.
While city staff took down five of the comments at the request of the speakers after multiple requests, 16 are still posted online.
City Manager Erik Sund was adamant that no one’s privacy had been violated by the comments being posted, adding that the District Attorney’s office had only told them to redact the emails of those who requested it.
“There’s no violation of privacy as alleged by public commenters. We value privacy and we maintain that,” Sund said.
But some of the comments reviewed by Voice of OC did include home addresses that were included in the message that went unredacted, along with their name and personal email address.
Sund said city staff would be contacting all those affected by the posting in the next few days and asking them whether or not they wanted their email addresses to remain up. If they do, their comments would be incorporated as part of a summary of that meeting and if they don’t, the comments would be removed from the city’s portal.
It remains unclear how many of those commenters knew their information was posted to the city page.
Ferguson criticized Sund’s comments, calling it a “deliberate doxxing,” intended to discourage public speakers.
Ferguson’s minor son Eric was among those whose email addresses were published online, but it was taken down after she requested staff remove it.
“When people brought this to the city manager’s attention three months ago he should have just taken them down,” Ferguson said. “I believe this was a political act to single out 22 private citizens.”
Ferguson, San Clemente’s former city public information officer, also pointed out how city officials redact personal information – like email addresses and phone numbers – when processing public records requests.
Yet, she said, that approach wasn’t taken with public comments.
“There have been no violations,” Sund repeated after Ferguson’s remarks. “We can agree to disagree.”
While the rest of the council agreed with Ferguson to take the posts down, none of her colleagues supported her position that it was done to expose or threaten any public speakers.
“I wish back in January when this was first brought to council’s attention we would have addressed it immediately,” said Mayor Gene James. “This was a self-imposed wound on our front … but I will say there was no nefarious intention.”
Councilman Chris Duncan spent most of his time questioning why the city spent so much time talking about the issue, calling it a “made up issue,” and pinning the blame on Brad Malamud, the lawyer who represented Ferguson during the censure and a frequent critic of the council.
“The only reason there is a portal is because Mr. Malamud requested it,” Duncan said. “This is completely made up, no one doxxed. The comments were made and conveyed exactly as written, which is what was requested … I wish we’d never wasted half an hour of the public’s time.”
Duncan was booed by the crowd at the meeting for those comments, forcing James to threaten a 10-minute recess multiple times if they couldn’t quiet down.
Discussion on the issue ended after that, with Councilwoman Kathy Ward calling for a vote to fix the issue in the next week and adding that the council would be informed when the emails were taken down.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
And 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.