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By Shawn Raymundo
Councilmember Laura Ferguson has filed a lawsuit accusing the city of Public Records Act violations, after being denied requests for her fellow councilmembers’ communications related to her censure last fall.
In the lawsuit she filed in Orange County Superior Court this month, Ferguson alleges that the city has violated her right to obtain public records by failing to adequately respond to her requests, and seeks to uncover the previous city council’s plans to censure her.
Since Councilmembers Kathy Ward, Gene James and Chris Hamm voted to censure Ferguson over “unacceptable conduct” nearly a year ago, she’s sought to obtain several documents and her colleagues’ emails pertaining to the censure through public records requests.
“Post-censure hearing, I wanted to know what was said and what transpired and who was involved and why they felt they needed to do this to me and what was going on,” Ferguson said. “I always believe in people’s due process rights.”
However, the city has not turned those records over to her, citing attorney-client privilege and deliberative process exemptions—a California doctrine that protects documents containing an agency’s deliberations and decision-making discussions from being disclosed.
City Attorney Scott Smith said he couldn’t provide an official statement to the lawsuit on behalf of the city until at least Tuesday, Sept. 28, when the council meets in closed session. He did explain, though, that the decision not to provide Ferguson with those emails has stemmed from her threats of litigation since the censure.
“She’s been threatening litigation of her censure since days before it happened. What she’s looking for is confidential advice from the city attorney about her claim,” he said, adding, “Our position is that claimants don’t have the right to ask the city attorney’s advice to council about their claim.”
The lawsuit names the city and City Manager Erik Sund as defendants, as well as Ward and James—currently the mayor and mayor pro tem, respectively—and Hamm, whose term expired shortly after the Nov. 23 censure hearing.
“If your fellow council majority is going to put on such a show at the taxpayers’ expense … and create this whole theater, this narrative—like I violated policies and rules—and yet I don’t get to know? I don’t think that’s legal or fair,” Ferguson said.
James on Friday, Sept. 24, said it was unfortunate that Ferguson would engage “in this frivolous litigation,” before adding that she should instead be concerned about an apparent workplace harassment investigation involving her.
“Her time would be better spent dealing with the workplace harassment investigation that she’s the subject of, and refused to take part in any interview or discussion,” James said, restating what he had told the Voice of OC earlier this week.
Ferguson refuted such remarks, calling them lies and telling San Clemente Times that she has met with the investigator who, according to her, didn’t specify what allegations she’s facing but did report that “there’s nothing actionable against me.”
She also noted that after the Voice of OC published its story on the lawsuit, she presented James’ comments to Smith.
“Scott said he can reveal that there’s a complaint that exists but not the details of the complaint,” she explained. “Well, isn’t that interesting? They (the council) get to know the details of the complaint but I don’t.”
When asked about the investigation into the workplace harassment allegations, Smith declined to comment until after he’s checked with the council.
Ward and Hamm did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on Friday afternoon.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.