San Clemente City Councilmembers are set to discuss whether or not they violated residents’ privacy at two meetings, one publicly and one behind closed doors, on Tuesday night.
The controversy focuses on emails sent by 21 public commenters opposing the censure of Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, who was criticized by her council colleagues after she released a secret city study that she said had no right to remain confidential and called out city staff for trying to stop its release.
The censure has continued to haunt San Clemente politics for over a year now, including a short-lived attempt to require councilmembers sign a loyalty pledge to the city to access confidential records.
In additional documents released Friday morning, the city confirmed Ferguson’s censure motion has also cost the city over $128,000 as it had to fight a lawsuit brought by Ferguson alleging city staff withheld records she requested to argue her case.
After Ferguson was censured by her colleagues, the city loaded some of the comments residents emailed to the city website without redacting any identifying information, including emails and home addresses.
But Ferguson says the city didn’t choose to upload every comment that was sent in, just the ones that supported her, and she says she hasn’t been able to get an answer on why those ones were put up for public view while the others weren’t.
Several residents whose information was published spent nearly a month wrestling with city staff to get the information taken down.
Susan Nespor, one of the first people to spot the problem, said she reached out to the city and on January 12 her information was redacted.
But two days later, it was back, with no explanation from city staff on why it made a return.
At the next city council meeting on the 18th, Nespor decided to speak with city manager Erik Sund about the problem during a recess.
“I said I’d like to talk to you for a moment if I could and he said no, our meeting’s going to be starting in one minute,” Nespor said in an interview with Voice of OC. “He said no, I just can’t.”
Sund’s assistant offered her a business card and encouraged her to set up a time to meet with him in the near future.
By the 24th, Nespor said her information and four other residents who complained had their information redacted, but the information for the 16 residents who did not complain to the city are still posted online.
Ferguson also reached out to the Orange County District Attorney’s office, which sent a letter back confirming they’d spoken with city attorney Scott Smith about the issue and that it had been resolved.
Smith has argued the city only needs to redact the information for residents who’ve asked to have the information taken down, but for those who haven’t noticed or haven’t asked the city for a change it can stay up according to Ferguson.
But Smith has declined to comment on the issue publicly, saying at the last council meeting that he wouldn’t speak on it due to concerns over litigation.
One of those who had to get their information redacted was Eric Ferguson, Laura’s son and a minor.
“It’s a purely political act, except it’s worse. It’s not against a public official, it goes after private citizens to punish them for speaking against the majority council censure,” Ferguson said in an interview with Voice of OC.
At the council’s meeting on April 5, Councilman Gene James called for a public discussion on the issue, calling it a “festering sore,” they needed to deal with after public commenters asked questions about the issue again.
Because of concerns the city could get sued over the issue, the council will first discuss the issue behind closed doors and then host a public forum for people to get information later in the meeting.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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