Criticize Escondido’s Council? Lose Your Contract

SAN DIEGO – The City of Escondido cut off funding for a fair housing organization, because the organization published remarks critical of the city’s anti-immigrant policies in its newsletter, according to the San Diego ACLU which represented the organization, the Center for Social Advocacy, in the dispute. The ACLU today announced that the City of Escondido agreed to settle the claim for $20,000 after months of negotiation.

The Center for Social Advocacy (CSA), a nonprofit that addresses civil and human rights issues–including housing and voter education–in San Diego County, received a settlement check late last week to compensate the organization for a lost contract. CSA had previously held a contract with the City of Escondido, financed by Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to provide fair housing services to city residents. But when CSA’s Fall 2009 newsletter included an op-ed criticizing Escondido’s treatment of its Latino population, the City refused to renew CSA’s contract and awarded it to another agency.

“The government can’t punish contractors because it doesn’t like what they say,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU. “The city had no complaints about CSA’s services. It just didn’t like seeing a critical opinion piece in the agency’s newsletter.”

In March 2010, the Escondido City Council apparently approved the continued allocation of funds to CSA to provide fair housing services to Escondido residents. But when officials learned about the 2009 op-ed, they refused to renew CSA’s contract and awarded the contract to another agency. In June 2010, according to CSA, the Neighborhood Services Manager for the City called the executive director of CSA to explain that the loss of contract was “no reflection on your services; your agency provides excellent services,” and that the contract was not renewed due to the editorial that was “against City Council.”

The San Diego ACLU submitted a claim to the City, asking the City to compensate CSA for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, which protects the right of contractors to criticize the government on issues of public concern. Due to the City’s willingness to address the issue in negotiations, it was not necessary to file a lawsuit. Instead, the City agreed to pay a total of $20,000 to settle the case. CSA received $16,760, and the ACLU recovered $3,240 in fees and costs. Though the settlement agreement does not admit the City’s liability, CSA feels that the settlement vindicates its concerns.

Blair-Loy noted the professionalism with which the Escondido City Attorney’s office responded to the claim and conducted settlement talks.