A battle in San Juan Capistrano over public records is heating up with the city taking the unusual step of intervening in an even more unusual lawsuit filed against councilwoman Pam Patterson by a political ally. Back in April, the Weekly requested two-and-a-half months worth of correspondences from Patterson under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). While this infernal rag waited for complete fulfillment of our request, Clint Worthington, a local gadfly, sued the councilwoman in May seeking a court order to halt her from turning over emails and text message exchanges he sent to her private email account and cell phone.
Citing the possibility that Worthington and Patterson may reach a settlement preventing a release of responsive records, the city asked to join the suit. In court documents, attorneys with Best, Best and Krieger, an Ontario-based firm retained by San Juan Capistrano, argued that the city’s interests are “inadequately represented” and “not fully protected” by either Worthington or Patterson.
What are those interests at stake that motivated San Juan Capistrano to intervene?
“[The] City is a public agency with a fundamental interest in government transparency, providing citizens with access to its public records, and compliance with California law,” court documents read. “It seeks to join this Action in order to assert and protect its ability to comply with the California Public Records Act.”
San Juan Capistrano did their part in regards to the Weekly‘s Apr. 3 request. Documents in the city’s possession came without any undue delay. An article based on the yield followed in early May regarding Patterson refusing to order from NYC Cafe, a local eatery, for a city meeting because of religious concerns about possible “Middle Eastern” ownership and halal food prepped in accordance to sharia law.
All that remained were any possible public records on Patterson’s private email and phone devices, an ask that could net exchanges between the councilwoman and Worthington though the Weekly didn’t explicitly ask for such. The city clerk’s office routinely updated the Weekly that it was diligently working with the councilwoman to identify more public records responsive to the request. Patterson turned over a few emails from her private attorney email concerning her trusteeship with the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District.
But the records never came in full. Worthington filed his suit just eight days after the Patterson article published. In it, he alleges that the Weekly sought private records, that if collected by the city and turned over, would “disclose privileged news sources, attorney-client privileged communications and private personal communications,” in violation of his first amendment and privacy rights.
In seeking to bolster his case, Worthington, ironically, quoted from a California Supreme Court ruling in 2016 against San Jose that holds state and local officials can’t keep responsive public records on private accounts away from those who ask for them under the California Public Records Act. Not only did the city’s attorneys deny Worthington’s allegations of potential violations of his rights, they point out his incomplete quotes from the precedent setting case.
“The correct statement is: ‘CPRA…makes clear that not everything written by a public employee is subject to review and disclosure. To qualify as a public record, a writing must ‘contain information relating to the conduct of the public’s business,'” attorneys for the city noted. They further explained that the court ruling held “incidental mentions of agency business” in general won’t constitute public records in saying the text spoke for itself.
With the possibility of a settlement burying exchanges between Worthington and Patterson that otherwise qualify as public records, the city cites concerns it could face exposure to future litigation for failing to comply with the California Public Records Act. Having been allowed to intervene in the suit, they’re asking that Worthington’s complaint and any potential class action he seeks be dismissed.
If that happens, all that’s left to address are Patterson’s emails and text messages.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.