City of Chico settles journalist’s lawsuit Violations of public records act cost taxpayers tens of thousands

by Leslie Layton
posted July 14

The City of Chico has settled a lawsuit filed by a local journalist over violations of the California Public Records Act, providing the documents requested and agreeing to pay the costs of the journalist’s attorney.

A Butte County judge has signed an order based on a settlement agreement in the lawsuit filed by journalist Dave Waddell against the City of Chico.

The taxpayers’ price tag for the City’s non-compliance is $43,637 – which is the cost of the San Francisco attorney hired by ChicoSol contributor Dave Waddell. The City has also provided all requested records – in some cases 19 months after the requests were first made.

Waddell had requested public records related to four killings by or involving officers at the Chico Police Department; the first requests that were addressed by his lawsuit were made in November 2020.

“We wanted to access records related to four tragic shootings, and that’s what we achieved,” said attorney Aaron Field, who represented Waddell. “Hopefully this was a learning experience for all involved and will not be recurring.”

The City is represented by a Southern California law firm, Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin. Senior Partner Roger Colvin, who helped with the case, couldn’t be reached for comment. The $43,637 bill could have been much higher had the City not settled quickly.

Waddell made Public Records Act requests for the killings of Eddie Sanchez, Desmond Phillips, Tyler Rushing and Stephen Vest.

In all four cases the City disclosed some documents and declared the requests fulfilled. When Waddell requested all related records, including video and audio recordings, the City stalled, sometimes saying that it needed more time, or that it no longer had the records, or that staff were “out sick” and the requests couldn’t immediately be addressed.

A few of the records that were provided were heavily redacted.

The delays put the City in violation of new transparency laws that took effect in January of this year, and arguably the earlier requirement that responses to Public Records Act requests be prompt. In addition, Field said, some of the redactions were “unjustified based on statutes [the City] cited.”

The records were provided in their entirety by June 3 – with unjustified redactions removed, Waddell said — and a court order emanating from the settlement agreement was signed by a Butte County Superior Court judge June 29.

photo courtesy of Aaron Field
Aaron Field is a partner in the San Francisco firm Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Olson.

Field said language in the agreement indicates the City now recognizes “important principles that will be useful to future requesters.”

Waddell, who is working on a book about Butte County law enforcement killings, said the records have shaped many of his stories for ChicoSol, giving him and our readers a more multi-dimensional understanding of not just what transpired during the killings, but also how the investigations into those killings were handled.

For example, records released with the assistance of his attorney led to this story that shows how Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey organized an unorthodox group “re-interview” of the officers who were at the scene of the March 17, 2017, police killing of Desmond Phillips.

And Waddell said the records on the Sanchez killing that have been released “change the whole complexion of that killing.”

“Honestly, that killing is a travesty when you look at the actual facts of what happened,” he said.

photo by Karen Waddell
Writer Dave Waddell shows blacked-out pages that were sent him as part of an autopsy report. Many of the redactions have been removed.

The autopsy report on Sanchez first arrived heavily redacted. But when unjustified redactions were removed and additional records and video examined, Waddell discovered that the bullet wounds received by the fleeing Sanchez raised troubling questions. He then consulted a national police expert and wrote this story about the killing by Chico Police Sgt. Mark Bass, which has received unusual attention and 40 comments submitted by readers.

Killings by law enforcement officers are routinely followed by investigations conducted by DA Ramsey’s Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. Waddell said the records “reveal that these so-called investigations were blatantly biased in every killing I looked at involving the Chico Police Department. The fix was in to exonerate the killing officers in every instance.”

Waddell has submitted two new Public Records Act requests for documents related to Bass.

Although it’s still unclear why the City didn’t retain records that were requested by Waddell, attorney Field is optimistic that it now understands that it must “allocate the resources necessary to comply with state law.”

The settlement language notes the requirement that public records be provided a requester “at the earliest possible time and no later than 45 days” from the date of the request. That sentence appears at first glance to be “simply a statement of law,” Field said.

“But in another sense it’s a formal recognition of [the City’s] obligations under that law.”

Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.

17 thoughts on “City of Chico settles journalist’s lawsuit Violations of public records act cost taxpayers tens of thousands

  1. Another lawsuit that cost the city a bunch of money.

    The redactions make me wonder what the police and the DA have to hide.

    Good work Dave Wadell and ChicoSol!

  2. This lawsuit equates to a vestige of representative gov’t. Without the free flow of info our gov’t differs little from fascism. Thank you Dave and thank you Chico Sol. We are in your debt.

  3. It gives me some hope that the court finally recognized Dave’s legitimate request. But it took took took too long. And missing from the story is that up until the time the judge decided in Dave’s favor, he personally risked the $43,637. We are fortunate that Dave could do this, and was willing to assume this risk. But what does it say for our system of public records request and the Chico PD that someone has to go to such lengths just to exercise their rights as both a citizen and journalist?

  4. Who is responsible for withholding the documents requested – we should be recognizing publicly which if our “public servant” are comfortable with not following the prevailing laws and they Should Be Fired!
    We have a bunch of conservatives elected who seem to relish the fight and ignore the costs to Tax Payers – it’s not money out of their pockets and it seems most Chico Conservatives don’t really mind

  5. Thank goodness Mr. Waddle is a credited journalist and knows the law surround such issues. It is maddening the city spends so much money trying to avoid their responsibilities or protect corruption. I am so sick of it. Our people deserve better. And the people whom vote for these people who think they know the laws and do everything they can to demean folks, is even sadder. We should respect all and ALL lives are important.

    Thank you Dave, this is important work and I might not like the BS our representatives are doing, We ALL need to know.

    Lisa Currier

  6. Thank you Dave. Your excellent work moves us another step closer to justice and transparency in Butte County law enforcement. Thanks for your steadfast effort to change local policing.

  7. I’m glad they won this. The DA and the protection provided to officers that are corrupt is an issue for Butte County.

  8. I want to add my gratitude for the way ChicoSol is shining a light into policing in Butte County. Thank you to Leslie Layton and Dave Waddell for your work. I agree that this successful lawsuit might make a huge difference in the future. It could even help curtail officer involved shootings if “law enforcement” knows, no matter what the D.A. tries to do, the truth will be coming out. All justice loving people surely HOPE so!

    1. I am “piggybacking” on the comment of Chris Nelson… my sincere desire is that the “peace officers” who use lethal force will pause for a split second to assess the situation and consider another option before firing away at a civilian. Thank you ChicoSol team, Leslie Layton, and Dave Waddell for your incredible contribution to the effort to get transparency from Butte County and Chico “higher-ups” in law enforcement and politics.

  9. I am so relieved to see justice prevail on the issue of transparency. Thank you Chico Sol and Dave Waddell for your stalwart efforts.

  10. Thank you Dave Waddell for your persistence to represent the actual stories of four humans who lost their lives at the hands of Chico police officers, and for the families who are continuing to demand accountability & justice. The success of this lawsuit will open a way for more truth to be told.

  11. What a shame that it took so long and cost so much to be able to receive documentation from the City of Chico. I hope that the new information continues to shed light on how the PD and DA are performing their jobs. I know they are not all bad actors and I appreciate all those who are doing good for our community. But having informed citizens is important. Thanks to Mr. Waddell for his persistence.

  12. The entire public record law and process needs to be overhauled. There seems to be little penalty against the agency for abusing the laws. They know few have the resources to sue for the records, so they seem to routinely deny or redact. Look what happened here? They redacted until Dave sued them. And isn’t this misleading about the amount of money, because it doesn’t show what the City of Chico had to pay its attorneys too! There are far too many public record abuses in this town. The police, the City, the school district. Something has to change.

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