Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Shasta County California Court Rules Investigator's Report is a Public Record

Shasta County Superior Court District 4 Judge Monica Marlow ruled early Monday, Dec. 14, in favor of open public records in a lawsuit filed by the Redding Record Searchlight to obtain a sealed investigator's report from the Anderson Fire Protection District.

The newspaper, represented by Redding attorney Walter P. McNeill, filed suit seeking the release under California's Public Records Act of an investigator's report into allegations of mismanagement by the district's former Fire Chief Joe Piccinini, who resigned July 1.

Representing the fire district and arguing that the investigator's report was a confidential personnel file was attorney Michael Fitzpatrick, also of Redding, who briefed the fire district's board of directors during a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 8. Since Piccinini's resignation, three of the district's board members were replaced Dec. 4 when voters in November elected two incumbent board members, a retired fire chief and two community business owners to the district's first independently-elected board since it was founded in 1889. Fitzpatrick and the previous fire board contended that the report should remain sealed in Piccinini's confidential personnel file and released only under a judge's orders.

The fire board heard in open session only from Fitzpatrick, who gave brief descriptions of three separate attempts, one successful, to release copies of the investigator's report. In late October, the Shasta County Grand Jury obtained a copy of the investigator's report after the presiding judge ruled that the Grand Jury was entitled to the information, Fitzpatrick said. "The district took every reasonable action to protect the record as confidential," he said. Prior to filing its lawsuit, the Record Searchlight made two requests for the district to voluntarily turn over the report.

The Valley Post also made a similar request. All three requests were denied, with Fitzpatrick explaining that the California Firefighters Bill of Rights allows the district to withhold certain information from public view since the "subject of the investigation (Piccinini) and the policies he was implementing are something of the past. He has resigned and the district is moving forward, implementing whatever charges they deem necessary to minimize liability exposure to the district," Fitzpatrick responded to a series of legal arguments filed by McNeill in anticipation of the 8:30 a.m. court trial.  

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