What Does the City of Escondido Have to Hide?

UPDATE: The City of Escondido has recognized the community’s right to know the details of its severance agreement with former police chief Jim Maher’s, and released the documents to the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties [copies of the documents to the right].

California courts have held that the public has a right to see documents relating to the departure of high-ranking public employees, whose limited privacy rights in the terms and conditions of their employment cannot trump the public’s interest in open government.

“The City made the right choice by disclosing this deal to the public,” said David Loy, legal director at the San Diego ACLU. “Good governance must always include transparency and accountability.”

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The citizens of Escondido deserve to know the details of their former police chief’s secret severance package, charged the San Diego ACLU in a letter sent today to the Escondido’s City Clerk.

[Lea este artículo aquí en español.]

Citing the California Public Records Act, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties is requesting a copy of all “records containing any settlement, severance, or other agreement entered into between the City of Escondido and its former chief of police Jim Maher relating to his departure from City employment.”

The City of Escondido has ten days to respond.

The public has a strong interest in disclosure of the agreement.  As recently reported in the UT San Diego, former chief Maher “by all appearances received a severance package with a confidentiality clause,” and in “[Mayor] Abed’s opinion, which he arrived at after consulting with city staff, the legal restrictions built into Maher’s settlement practically preclude him from running” for elected office in the City.

“The City of Escondido is disregarding accountability and transparency in this case,” said David Loy, legal director at the San Diego ACLU. “We hope the City will respond quickly and allow community members to see what deals it has struck behind closed doors.”

The courts have a history of siding with transparency. California courts have held that the public has a right to see documents relating to the departure of high-ranking public employees, whose limited privacy rights in the terms and conditions of their employment cannot trump the public’s interest in open government. Interpreting a public records statute with a personnel exemption similar to California’s, the Washington Court of Appeals held that a city was required to disclose a severance agreement with its former fire chief in light of the “reasonable concern by the public that government conduct itself fairly and use public funds responsibly,” and noted that “if a public agency’s settlement agreement cannot withstand public scrutiny, it may be flawed in the first place.”

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