City allegedly ignores citizen’s Public Records Act request regarding fired police officers
A Lassen County resident interested in finding out how much money the city of Susanville has spent on the case of two fired Susanville police officers that has been an issue since 2017 alleges the city has not responded to his recent request for public records in a timely manner as required by the California Public Records Act.
According to California Government Code Section 6256, a public agency must respond to a PRA request within 10 days. Chris Cole reports he requested information April 15, and still has not received a response from city hall as of today, Thursday, May 14.
Actually, Cole said he filed the PRA request twice. He said he submitted his first request on a city form April 15 and after 10 days went by without a response, he asked Councilmember Brian Moore for his help. He was told the city never received his emailed request — perhaps because it arrived in the city clerk’s spam folder.
“I resubmitted it on April 29,” Cole said. “We’re 13 days in, and I find it surprising because the city’s always been pretty good … I know they got it. They’re just not getting back to me on it.”
He said Moore told him the city had received the request and was discussing with its attorneys what information could be released.
Cole’s request included: “1. All legal expenses incurred by the city from outside and in-house legal services billed regarding the termination and litigation of former Susanville Police Department officers Sergeant Mike Bollinger and Lieutenant Matt Wood from the beginning of the events to today’s date, 04/15/2020. 2. All expenses or services billed to the city by the private investigator in the investigation of the hiring of the former Chief of Police John King. 3. All available and/or public documents on the aforementioned investigation which you are able to provide.”
Cole requested similar information from the city in June 2018, and Jessica Ryan, city attorney, responded with some information about billing from the Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann and Girard law firm regarding the issues arising from the termination of the two veteran Susanville police officers was discloseable and some was not. However, according to invoices provided to Cole by Ryan, the city had spent at least $101,164 on legal fees in the matter.
Cole, who has supported the officers before the city council in the past, said his goal in making the 2018 request was simply to keep the city of Susanville transparent.
“They always talked about how they couldn’t talk about the investigation because it was ongoing … That investigation started as an investigation into the hiring of the police chief, and then it veered out, and we never heard from the city what happened to that (investigation),” Cole said. “It’s like it went poof.”
“When they voted 4-1 (May 28, 2018) to uphold the firing, I thought, ‘here’s my opportunity,’ for the city to be transparent and let us know how much they spent,” Cole said at the time.
Councilmember Mendy Schuster cast the lone dissenting vote in a 4-1 decision. Mayor Kathie Garnier, Mayor pro tem Joe Franco and councilmembers Brian Wilson and Kevin Stafford voted to deny the officers’ appeals.
“Was it worth it?” Cole asked in 2018. “Does the cost outweigh the expenditures? And I still think it was political, 100 percent.”
Wood and Bollinger, both veteran officers at the Susanville Police Department, were put on administrative leave and then fired for their roles in filing a crime report alleging the impersonation of an officer and the forgery of Wood’s signature on a document used in the hiring of Susanville Police Chief John King.
Bollinger filed a grievance with the city over the hiring process Dec. 22, 2016.
Wood and Bollinger filed a request for a writ of mandate in Lassen County Superior Court.
In July 2019, Candace Beason, a visiting Lassen County Superior Court Judge, sent the matter back to the Susanville City Council to reconsider its decision to fire the two officers. The judge directed the council to “issue new findings and decision in compliance with the requirements established” in Topanga Association for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles.
In her decision Beason wrote, “The court finds that Wood and Bollinger exercised a legal right when they individually filed grievances to the hiring process to fill the position of Susanville Police Chief. There is no evidence in the record to establish a malicious intent in filing the grievances or the police report to document the unauthorized use of Wood’s signature to obtain confidential information. The Susanville City Council’s factual findings demonstrate an imputation of malice to both petitioners that taints the findings of misconduct and the decision to terminate petitioners’ employment.”
Beason also wrote, “The record does not establish that either Wood or Bollinger harbored malice in regards to the filing of the police report for unauthorized use of Wood’s signature or contacting the Lassen County Sheriff’s Department or the California Department of Justice. The report served the purpose of documenting the incident. It was not fatally flawed by failing to list potential Penal Code violations.”
The Lassen County Grand Jury also criticized the city for the process it followed in hiring King.
In January 2020 the city’s attorney and the officers’ attorney agreed to submit the matter to mediation. Both sides even agreed on a judge who would handle the mediation, but that has not occurred yet.