After a seven-month struggle and a strange lawsuit, San Juan Capistrano councilwoman Pam Patterson, at long last, gave a batch of emails from her private account to the city in early November. They proved to be the final yield from a public records request filed by the Weekly way back on Apr. 3 for two-and-a-half months worth of Patterson’s emails. By then, the city had long handed over responsive records it held, including an email where Patterson refused to order from a local restaurant because it also served halal food, within a reasonable and lawful time frame.
But when it came to emails on Patterson’s private account that may have had to do with city matters, she dragged on, and on, and on. A big delay came courtesy of a lawsuit Clint Worthington, a Patterson political ally, filed in May against her just days after the Weekly‘s story about the councilwoman’s Christian aversion to the local eatery on account of suspicions aroused by its supposed “Middle Eastern” ownership.
The complaint claimed the records request, if fulfilled, would violate his right to attorney-client privileges, among other professed protections, in having communicated with Patterson, who’s a lawyer.
San Juan Capistrano, fearing a settlement between Worthington and Patterson could open the city up to litigation for failing to act in accordance with the California Public Records Act, responded by taking the unusual step of intervening in the public records roil. On Sept. 19, the city sought relevant evidence from Worthington and Patterson before going to trial.
“Having the authority and the power of the judge overseeing that process and being able to order the parties to turn over the documents is a much stronger tool than just the Public Records Act itself,” says Jeff Ballinger, a contracted attorney for the city. “We were already in front of the judge. That hammer was pretty close to coming down.”
Two days later, Worthington suddenly dropped his lawsuit against Patterson.
The ordeal cost San Juan Capistrano a total of $77,000 between city attorney fees and separate legal counsel Patterson demanded in her defense. Looking back, Ballinger deems the case peculiar. “His lawsuit, essentially, was asking the court to intervene in matters that didn’t fundamentally deal with public records,” he says. “If a member of the public contacts a council member who happens to be an attorney and is seeking to engage that person as an attorney, that does not constitute a public record under the San Jose decision.”
That’s the state supreme court ruling in 2016 that holds state and local officials can’t keep responsive records away on private email accounts or cellphones from those who request them under law.
With the lawsuit dropped, the city sent the Weekly a new batch of emails on Nov. 6 that Patterson handed over from her private account–a collection revealing only in its dullness. “None of the records that our office saw were of the nature that Worthington was concerned about in his complaint in terms of being potentially privileged,” Ballinger says.
On Monday, the city clerk’s office deemed the emails handed over as the final ones in a long, overdrawn ordeal. “Council Member Patterson has concluded the search for any additional responsive documents for your request,” wrote Christy Jackl, assistant city clerk. “No additional records were located. Therefore, we believe the City has completed its response to your request.”
Seven months and $77,000 later, all that’s left is a lesson.
“The take away is to really impress upon public officials the need to use their city email accounts rather than their personal email accounts,” Ballinger says. “It really furthers the purpose of the Public Records Act when you enable your city clerk’s office to have access to that server and those records that are on that server as opposed to having to go through all of the costs and expense that San Juan Capistrano had to in intervening in the court action and pursuing council member Patterson to get her to turn over records that were on her private servers.”
Silver lining: Patterson won’t be generating any new public records as councilwoman next year. She lost her seat in District 3 by placing a distant second to fellow incumbent Derek Reeve. With such a wide margin, all Patterson could do is be seen by the Weekly at the lobby of the Orange County Registrar of Voters office showing two young Republican guys a video about the QAnon conspiracy theory while bragging about having met President Donald Trump at the White House.