For most a routine traffic stop goes either one of two ways:
You’re on the hook for an infraction and some money to the court.
Or you’re off.
But a coastal Orange County city official is learning things can pan out quite differently for those with government titles.
In a certain environment, it can morph into an issue of public information.
For Laguna Beach City Manager Shohreh Dupuis, something as minor as a cell phone ticket on Pacific Coast Highway last November – and documentation surrounding the stop, during which Dupuis purported to be on the phone with the Police Chief while speaking to the motor officer – can turn out to be of interest to residents who pay close attention to City Hall.
It can also mean a California Public Records Act request.
It’s a powerful tool any Golden State resident can use to get documents and otherwise unshared information about taxpayer-funded public agencies.
But such requests often get pushback and delays, something one Laguna Beach resident has felt on the other end.
The resident: Michele Monda, a city affairs columnist who admits that when it comes to watchdogging local leaders, an everyday ticket would likely fall under a non-issue.
But she said she sought to learn more and, two days after Dupuis’ ticket, filed her request for police records on Nov. 18.
It’s March and Monda’s still challenging the city’s response.
Under the Public Records Act, a public agency has 10 days to respond to a member of the public’s request.
The city took an additional 14 to respond to Monda’s first request, which they mostly denied. Monda filed a second request with an attorney which the city received on Dec. 22.
Twenty-six days later, the Los Angeles law firm hired to handle Monda’s request told her she’d have to wait until Jan. 30. for redacted records, all around the Nov. 16 traffic stop, according to the response letters Monda provided for review.
Officials eventually handed over some things, including a text message dated the day of the stop from Dupuis to the chief: “He is giving me a ticket for being on the phone with you.”
And there were some things the city would continue to deny.
Namely, Monda’s requests for the incident’s body-worn camera footage.
Speaking in public at one Feb. 7 City Council meeting, Monda said the records she’s sought should prove Dupuis wasn’t using her position in government to get out of a stop.
It’s a notion that Dupuis, who declined to comment for this story, appeared to deny in a public response to Monda’s comments later that night, publicly acknowledging the problem with her use of a phone at the wheel.
Yet the city declined to give the footage of that encounter on the basis that it was part of an ongoing investigation, according to its response letters – an often-cited exemption written into the Public Records Act.
That argument “defies common sense,” Monda wrote in a Feb. 17 response to the city. “The City apparently does not even believe itself that is the case since it has already released other purported records of relevant phone calls and text messages.”
“What are they hiding?” she asked council members at the meeting.
More importantly, Monda said it illustrates the ways government agencies can skirt the public’s right to information – a right that state legislators set out to enshrine in state law.
“This is about a California Public Records Act request and the public’s interest in knowing the truth – that no one is above the law and there is no favoritism at City Hall,” Monda said on Feb. 7.
One member of the council agrees.
“It makes it very difficult for an individual to get to the truth when they’re opposed by people in positions of power, and with the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to impose a simple request (around) a ticket,” said City Councilmember George Weiss in a phone interview.
“And that’s shameful as far as I’m concerned.”
City Hall spokesperson Cassie Walder said officials have satisfied their end of the state Public Records Act.
“The City has promptly responded to Ms. Monda’s multiple public records requests regarding the traffic stop with several written communications and copies of responsive records,” Walder said in a March 3 email.
Dupuis’ infraction has been followed by all sorts of excitement around this coastal cliffside town – be it tension between Dupuis and tuned-in residents, public charges of hostility and cover-ups, or more recently, a purported assault of Dupuis’ doorstep with, by initial accounts, “feces or sewage.”
Here are the agreed-upon facts:
On Nov. 16, Dupuis had her phone in her hand on Coast Highway when motor officer Matt Gregg pulled next to her. He stopped her near the intersection with Thalia Street, and during this interaction, Dupuis told the officer she had been on the phone with Police Chief Jeff Calvert, his boss.
Gregg believed Dupuis was lying (it would’ve still been an infraction) and cited her.
The matter didn’t end there. Based on public statements at the Feb. 7 City Council meeting, there were later occasions where Dupuis, Chief Calvert, a police captain and the motor officer met about or discussed Dupuis’ traffic stop — as well as a possible “misunderstanding” about the incident’s details.
Dupuis, addressing the issue publicly with a letter she read at the meeting, “was really worried … and upset about … why the officer didn’t believe me. So I asked Chief Calvert to work with his captain to address the misunderstanding. I even offered to meet with the officer and show him my phone to document that I was on the phone with Chief Calvert.”
She continued: “I was informed by Chief Calvert a week later that they had spoken to officer Gregg and after showing him information and proofs of the phone logs, he said I wasn’t lying and wished he had this information at the time.”
Earlier that night, Monda gave a different account at the microphone, “compiled by information people familiar with the situation have relayed to me, and through reading the scant documents that the city did provide.”
Her alleged understanding, in a nutshell, was that Gregg’s superiors in later meetings tried to get a different version of the events out of him “based on secondhand facts – purported evidence that Gregg has never seen.”
At one point, Monda claimed that Officer Gregg had expressed concern regarding “the changing of statements and details surrounding the stop.”
“Council — please help me understand. Doesn’t this sound like supervisory pressure intimidation and fear of retribution against an honest officer?” Monda asked.
Dupuis said it was her being put through the wringer.
She called social media speculation around her traffic stop “a violation of my privacy.”
Dupuis also took aim at four different residents, including Monda, accusing them of harassment and creating a “hostile work environment.”
Monda and Weiss both drew distinctions between harassment and pressing for public information.
Weiss said it’s the other way around: “It’s not possible for residents to create a toxic work environment.”
“They don’t work for the city.”
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