Pay day

Chico Unified set to pony up $200,000 after court denies lawsuit against Chico State to stop release of emails

For more than a decade, Jeff Sloan has been searching for answers. He’s been dogged in his quest to obtain public records that could shed light on what he believes to be despicable methods used to oust him from his position as Marsh Junior High School principal in 2004.

He finally got some of those answers last August, when a Butte County court ruled that more than 9,000 pages of emails sent by Chico Unified School District staff or board members be released to him. (He has yet to read through all 9,000 pages.) Last week, the district agreed to a settlement agreement with Sloan’s attorney, Paul Nicholas Boylan. To the tune of $200,000.

“That’s a significant amount of money. I’m pleased; it’s always good to have my time compensated,” Boylan said by phone. The Davis-based attorney has vast experience in dealing with public records and is a staunch supporter of transparency in government. “The law encourages that; it encourages the award of attorneys’ fees for attorneys who take these types of cases.

“It’s the largest settlement I’ve ever been paid for a case like this,” he added.

Why, exactly, is CUSD forking over such a large amount of cash? It’s complicated.

Two years ago, after several attempts to retrieve emails via the California Public Records Act from CUSD and getting some—but not all, he suspected—of what he was asking for, Sloan decided to look at the problem in a different way. “What Mr. Sloan suspected was that the district was using outside email services—like AOL or Gmail—so when people ask for these records, they can say, ‘We don’t have them’ and it’s true, even though it’s a trick,” Boylan said.

Several of the people whose emails he was interested in reading—then-Assistant Superintendent Bob Feaster and board members Andrea Lerner Thompson and Kathy Kaiser—also held positions at Chico State. So, Sloan sent a CPRA request for emails to the university, which in preparation to comply, offered the interested parties a chance to redact any private messages or information, Boylan said. CUSD’s lawyer then contacted Chico State and argued all of the emails should be exempt. The university balked and CUSD, along with Feaster, Lerner Thompson and Kaiser, sued Chico State.

“In communications with Chico Unified School District’s counsel (primarily Paul Gant), the District and the individually named plaintiffs demanded that CSU issue a blanket denial to Mr. Sloan, denying all of his requests and withholding all of the emails … on the grounds that the records were not public records because they pertained to District business and not CSU business, and because CSU Chico’s email system use policy provided the individually named plaintiffs with a privacy interest in all of the emails responsive to Mr. Sloan’s requests,” explains Chico State attorney Susan Westover in a declaration to the court.

In other words, they argued Chico State’s email policy made the exchanges private, and thus not applicable under public records laws.

CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley countered Westover’s statement, saying it was her understanding that the university did not immediately offer to redact any private information. “We spent a lot of money to protect students from the release of confidential information,” she said by phone. “In fact, we found confidential information [that was released] even after we went through it very carefully—some emails had social security numbers in them.”

In lieu of a judge, the court appointed what’s called a “special master”—in this case, Sacramento public law attorney Ruthann Ziegler—to weigh the petitioners’ arguments and make a decision.

“Having reviewed the records, the Special Master finds that the records Petitioners claim are not public records pursuant to the CSU Chico E-mail Policy and court decisions … are, in fact, public records,” Ziegler writes. “The reason is that these records are in the possession of a public agency subject to the CPRA and were used by public officials in the performance of their official duties, even if not for CSU Chico.”

In providing Sloan with these emails, the court sent a strong message to public agencies throughout California that transparency rules, Boylan said.

“There is no right more important than access to information,” he said. “Without it, you can’t make decisions, you can never identify whether something’s gone wrong. Whether we like it or not, every citizen is a watchdog. And you can’t fulfill that function if you can’t see what’s going on.”

For Sloan’s part, he’s not giving up the fight, but he is ready to relax a little.

“I’m not sure what comes next. I know I want to take some time off to spend with my wife, put all of this behind us,” he wrote in an email. “I can say that I am amazed how long this took and how much it all cost, not just me, but also the public. It shouldn’t take so much time and cost so much money for someone to review public records.”