Public Records Law Versus Firefighter Bill of Rights

A recent case involving the Anderson Fire Protection District, in California points out the challenges that sometimes occur when complying with open records laws. In May, 2009, the district board placed the fire chief on leave while it investigated allegations of misconduct.

The board hired a former police chief in Anderson to conduct the investigation, which  resulted in a 1,000 page report that cost the taxpayers a whopping $41,000 to prepare. The fire chief ended up resigning on July 1, 2009, but according to the Record Searchlight, neither the chief nor the board were forthcoming about the investigation. The newspaper felt that the cost of the report and the resignation were news worthy events that warranted full disclosure.

After its request for the report was rejected, the Record Searchlight sued the district in November, 2009 to obtain a copy under the Californian Public Records Act. Like open records laws in other states, the CPRA grants a right to the public to view public records unless the records fit within a specific exemption. While none of the exemptions were applicable under the circumstances, the district board felt that the California Firefighters Procedural Bill of Rights Act required them to withhold the report.

In a ruling issued in December, Shasta County Superior Court Judge Monica Marlow determined that the district wrongfully failed to comply with the public records law, and ordered the release of the report. The judge concluded "The public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest that would be served by withholding the records."

According to the Record Searchlight, the report reveals that among other things, the fire chief watched pornographic material on the office computers, was observed to be intoxicated while in uniform, and sexually harassed and verbally abusive to his own employees. On January 25, 2010 Judge Marlow followed up her prior ruling with an award of attorneys fees, ordering the district to pay the newspaper $16,123.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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