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Critics Claim Lack Of Transparency - Request For Study Information Denied, City Cites As “Privileged

POSTED May 29, 2012 8:44 p.m.

The City of Oakdale has denied an Oakdale Leader Public Information Act request filed on May 10 seeking a city paid report regarding a possible conflict of interest investigation into named city officials last year.

On Sept. 12, 2011, a unanimous decision was made by the city council to hire the legal firm of Meyers-Nave at $15,000 to investigate whether the consulting business VHHW, LLC posed ethical questions or a conflict of interest. The company is operated by Oakdale Human Resources Analyst Michelle Vinzina-McKinsey, former City Manager Steve Hallam, City Attorney Tom Hallinan, and then-Police Chief Marty West, who has since retired.

In its two-page reply rejecting a request for a redacted or non-redacted copy, Meyers-Nave stated that the report is an “Attorney-Client Privileged & Confidential Work Product” that was prepared in order to determine employee misconduct and designed to give legal advice for the anticipation of any litigation.

In its denial, Meyers-Nave cited state laws and court case decisions listing personnel issues and legal strategies being exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

“If public funds were used for this investigation, I feel it (report) should be released,” said Oakdale resident Kathleen Westenberg. “I find it surprising if they claim they’re going to be open and transparent and now not say anything.”

Westenberg has addressed the council in recent months about the status and results of the investigation.

“They should at least let us know if there was any wrongdoing and what they’re going to do about it,” she said.

When the subject of a private business run by city management staff was discovered in September, councilman Jason Howard described the matter as “incredibly troubling” and the actions of those involved as “blatantly wrong.”

Mayor Pat Paul supported Howard joining with Interim City Manager Greg Wellman in calling for the investigation, stating it would be done as a courtesy to the citizens of Oakdale so issues “could not be swept under the rug.”

“I wanted the report to be given out, but I’m now clearly in the minority,” Paul said on Wednesday when contacted.

“We’ve been given clear direction by legal staff not to comment.”

Paul refused to even state if the report identified any misconduct or any conflict of interest of any of the four individuals.
There were concerns at the time of the discovery of the Turlock based business by several city employees and labor groups who felt confidentiality barriers had been compromised, creating a potential leak of sensitive information.

“Obviously I feel they’re not being transparent,” said Oakdale resident and Operating Engineers Business Representative Mike Eggener. “This has the appearance that they’re hiding something.”

Eggener, who represents the city’s public works employees, stated he had made a similar request for the report.

Oakdale Police Association President Brian Shimmel, one of the persons who spoke out in September questioning a possible conflict, said he was disappointed that the results would not be known but also understood maintaining privacy in personnel investigations.

“As an employee representing officers and familiar with their rights, I understand the need for confidentiality unless criminal activity was involved,” said Shimmel.

With peace officer records, as with the sections cited by Mayers-Nave for keeping Chief West’s confidentiality, California Penal Code Section 832.7 requires officials to notify complaining parties about the disposition or finding of complaints. While the section prohibits stating what discipline was administered on a finding, terminology similar to “appropriate administrative action has been taken” is acceptable.

Under the California Public Information Act, a public agency has 10 days to decide whether the records request seeks information that should be disclosed. If an agency believes the information requested is exempt, it must justify its withholding. It does this by demonstrating that it qualifies under an exemption in state law or that the public interest in keeping the information confidential outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.

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