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.