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Who's frivolous?

City attorney gets dinged in court again — so does Briggs

Goldsmith defends the communications between him and the League of California Secret — er, Cities.
Goldsmith defends the communications between him and the League of California Secret — er, Cities.

In a May 15 ruling, San Diego Superior Court judge Joel Wohlfeil denied a motion from the City of San Diego to impose sanctions on environmental attorney Cory Briggs for filing a frivolous action accusing city attorney Jan Goldsmith of wasting taxpayer dollars by communicating with the media.

In his decision, Wohlfiel also ordered the city to pay $83,365 to Briggs in attorney's fees for the lawsuit against Goldsmith and his office for failing to turn over emails the city attorney sent from his private email account discussing city business.

If the amount stands, the total of taxpayer money spent on the case will rise to more than $230,000, not counting the time deputy city attorneys spent on the case and will spend for the appeal the city has since filed.

The push to place sanctions on Briggs is not new. Attorneys for the city have attacked Briggs and his San Diegans for Open Government for accusing Goldsmith of wasting taxpayer dollars by communicating with the media. The accusation was one of the many claims made in the lawsuit over Goldsmith's long-standing policy of using private email to conduct city business. Each time, as reported by the Reader, the court rejected that argument. One reason being that in its defense of Goldsmith, the city claimed he was not required to communicate with the media and therefore did so on his own accord.

In January of this year, Wohlfeil dismissed the taxpayer claim and at the same time ruled that the city had violated the public records act by withholding public documents. Now, Wohlfeil has also dismissed the motion for sanctions against Briggs.

"...[T]he cause of action was proper based on the alleged facts," Wohlfeil wrote in a May 14 ruling. "Thus, the cause of action was not completely devoid of legal merit. The cause of action for waste never progressed to an evidentiary hearing, and defendants fail to offer sufficient evidence via this motion demonstrating that the 'waste' cause of action was completely lacking in evidentiary support. In other words, defendants provide no evidence demonstrating that a useless expenditure of public funds did not actually take place."

But not all was lost for the city. In his tentative ruling, expected to be confirmed in the coming week, Wohlfeil sided with city attorneys over what they believed were excessive legal fees. Wohlfeil knocked off more than $22,000 from Briggs’s proposed legal bill.

Briggs has initially requested the city pay $105,320 for the time he and his staff worked on the lawsuit. Wohlfeil cut that number down substantially due to the fact that state law requires municipalities pay court costs if found to have withheld public records.

"Although petitioner's counsel displayed skill in handling the issues presented, this was not a particularly difficult action. Although petitioner's counsel apparently accepted representation based on a contingency fee agreement, they were virtually assured of obtaining an award of attorney fees in the event they prevailed. This court is mindful that this award will ultimately fall upon the taxpayers to pay."

And while the issue of fees and sanctions are now put to rest, the case is not over. Last month, city councilmembers voted to appeal Wohlfeil's January ruling that ordered Goldsmith to turn over what is estimated to be 25,000 pages of emails between the city attorney and the League of California Cities, sent to and from Goldsmith's private email account.

Goldsmith has gone on record to state the importance of keeping the emails private.

"This is a big deal not only for the League but for all trade associations and advocacy groups that seek member input on whether to file lawsuits or amicus curie briefs," Goldsmith said in a April 13 statement. “There are hundreds of emails from the League in which city attorneys from cities across the state are providing input on whether the League should become involved in a case.”

The League of California Cities is a private nonprofit that advocates for cities and municipalities across California. Member cities such as San Diego pay an annual membership fee to the league. According to public documents obtained by the Reader, the city has paid nearly $575,000 since 2004 in membership dues. Yet, despite the public participation and taxpayer funds used, the League of California Cities does not disclose financial information; nor does it follow the state's open-meeting laws.

If Goldsmith's appeal is granted, the group does not have to abide by California's public records act either.

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Goldsmith defends the communications between him and the League of California Secret — er, Cities.
Goldsmith defends the communications between him and the League of California Secret — er, Cities.

In a May 15 ruling, San Diego Superior Court judge Joel Wohlfeil denied a motion from the City of San Diego to impose sanctions on environmental attorney Cory Briggs for filing a frivolous action accusing city attorney Jan Goldsmith of wasting taxpayer dollars by communicating with the media.

In his decision, Wohlfiel also ordered the city to pay $83,365 to Briggs in attorney's fees for the lawsuit against Goldsmith and his office for failing to turn over emails the city attorney sent from his private email account discussing city business.

If the amount stands, the total of taxpayer money spent on the case will rise to more than $230,000, not counting the time deputy city attorneys spent on the case and will spend for the appeal the city has since filed.

The push to place sanctions on Briggs is not new. Attorneys for the city have attacked Briggs and his San Diegans for Open Government for accusing Goldsmith of wasting taxpayer dollars by communicating with the media. The accusation was one of the many claims made in the lawsuit over Goldsmith's long-standing policy of using private email to conduct city business. Each time, as reported by the Reader, the court rejected that argument. One reason being that in its defense of Goldsmith, the city claimed he was not required to communicate with the media and therefore did so on his own accord.

In January of this year, Wohlfeil dismissed the taxpayer claim and at the same time ruled that the city had violated the public records act by withholding public documents. Now, Wohlfeil has also dismissed the motion for sanctions against Briggs.

"...[T]he cause of action was proper based on the alleged facts," Wohlfeil wrote in a May 14 ruling. "Thus, the cause of action was not completely devoid of legal merit. The cause of action for waste never progressed to an evidentiary hearing, and defendants fail to offer sufficient evidence via this motion demonstrating that the 'waste' cause of action was completely lacking in evidentiary support. In other words, defendants provide no evidence demonstrating that a useless expenditure of public funds did not actually take place."

But not all was lost for the city. In his tentative ruling, expected to be confirmed in the coming week, Wohlfeil sided with city attorneys over what they believed were excessive legal fees. Wohlfeil knocked off more than $22,000 from Briggs’s proposed legal bill.

Briggs has initially requested the city pay $105,320 for the time he and his staff worked on the lawsuit. Wohlfeil cut that number down substantially due to the fact that state law requires municipalities pay court costs if found to have withheld public records.

"Although petitioner's counsel displayed skill in handling the issues presented, this was not a particularly difficult action. Although petitioner's counsel apparently accepted representation based on a contingency fee agreement, they were virtually assured of obtaining an award of attorney fees in the event they prevailed. This court is mindful that this award will ultimately fall upon the taxpayers to pay."

And while the issue of fees and sanctions are now put to rest, the case is not over. Last month, city councilmembers voted to appeal Wohlfeil's January ruling that ordered Goldsmith to turn over what is estimated to be 25,000 pages of emails between the city attorney and the League of California Cities, sent to and from Goldsmith's private email account.

Goldsmith has gone on record to state the importance of keeping the emails private.

"This is a big deal not only for the League but for all trade associations and advocacy groups that seek member input on whether to file lawsuits or amicus curie briefs," Goldsmith said in a April 13 statement. “There are hundreds of emails from the League in which city attorneys from cities across the state are providing input on whether the League should become involved in a case.”

The League of California Cities is a private nonprofit that advocates for cities and municipalities across California. Member cities such as San Diego pay an annual membership fee to the league. According to public documents obtained by the Reader, the city has paid nearly $575,000 since 2004 in membership dues. Yet, despite the public participation and taxpayer funds used, the League of California Cities does not disclose financial information; nor does it follow the state's open-meeting laws.

If Goldsmith's appeal is granted, the group does not have to abide by California's public records act either.

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Comments
8

Goldsmith like fungus operates best in the dark.

The people of San Diego have a lot of nerve thinking they should know what their City Attorney or any other official is up to.

May 15, 2015

The voters of San Diego have proven over and over again their stupidity by reelecting Mr. Hairpiece. They deserve exactly what they voted for. They wanted Goldsmith, they got Goldsmith, they deserve Goldsmith and they have no right to complain about him.

May 17, 2015

2nd worst rug I've seen in politics, there was this Mayor of Watertown, Ct ....

May 17, 2015

The whole concept of "officials/aka royalty" keeping US subjects in the dark is a fast-spreading pathology eating away at democracy. The biggest Good Ol' Boy (now Girl?) system in the world is the "justice" system.

May 15, 2015

RE: Last month, city council members voted to appeal Wohlfeil's January ruling that ordered Goldsmith to turn over what is estimated to be 25,000 pages of emails between the city attorney and the League of California Cities, sent to and from Goldsmith's private email account.

and

If Goldsmith's appeal is granted, the group does not have to abide by California's public records act either.

This is nothing more than Political CYA for all our elected Officials, that know that they too are also at risk should everyone be forced to hand over their private emails, which they have been using to further their political careers, and we are not talking just about everyone in San Diego.

I expect these appeals to go all the way to the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) if for no other reason than to delay the fallout from the release of all these (and similar) documents that will then expose all those that sought to profit from their Office.

May 16, 2015

Thanks again to brave Judge Joel Wohlfeil for his ruling against San Diego's disgracefully partisan City Attorney Jan Goldsmith who is incapable of recognizing a matter of public interest and acting on behalf of the commonweal.

May 16, 2015

The whole concept of public service got corrupted sometime ago, when the pols forgot (or simply didn't care) that they work for US, and we pay for their salaries and benefits.

May 16, 2015

Probably because they all now make much more from legalized donations and connections they establish while they are in Office not to mention all the "consulting jobs" they get after they leave Office. Their salaries, health benefits and retirement payouts are only a deluxe free meal ticket until their real income stream begins.

May 17, 2015

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