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Judge takes police union’s target off Santa Ana city officials’ backs

Think of them as bowling pins perched at the end of the alley.

One pin was the city of Santa Ana. One was the police chief. One was the city manager, another the city attorney, another the human resources director.

Thundering toward them was the heavy bowling ball — lawsuits filed by the unhappy head of the police union, as well as the union itself. Its goal was to smash those pins and smash them hard, holding the city and its employees accountable for a stunning range of alleged misdeeds. Except that, now, all the pins have been plucked from the formation save one, and the city’s declaring a victory of sorts even as its pin remains the lone target in the ball’s path.

That means Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho and Director of Human Resources Jason Motsick can breathe a little easier today, as the two lawsuits filed against them are dismissed with prejudice — meaning it’s done, and can’t be refiled.

“These dismissals with prejudice, at such an early stage of the proceedings, demonstrate the complete lack of merit in the allegations made against my clients,” said a statement from Jeffrey S. Ranen, attorney for the trio.

“These were two lawsuits that should have never been filed. My clients welcome the dismissal and are eager to get back to work on behalf of the residents of the City of Santa Ana without the distractions of these baseless lawsuits.”

There’s a wee catch though: In exchange for the dismissals, the three agreed not to seek attorneys fees and court costs from the police union — costs that have exceeded $600,000 for all defendants in two cases, which is a lot of public money.

Police Chief David Valentin was once a pin as well, but he was plucked off the formation in August by the judge. Valentin refused to agree to the I-won’t-seek-attorney’s-fees-if-you-drop-me-from-the-suit deal that the other three struck, and emerged victorious. The Santa Ana Police Officers Association has paid more than $1,200 in court costs for Valentin, and Valentin’s attorneys are asking for more than $143,000 for legal fees and other costs. There’s a hearing on that slated for the new year.

If Valentin wins, that would take a nice bite out of the city’s $600,000 legal bill — though the police union that would get stuck paying it would be most unhappy.

Serious allegations

This conflict really began, if you ask the city, when Police Officers Association head Gerry Serrano was preparing to retire and learned that his pension would be about half what he was expecting — about $120,000 a year for the rest of his life, rather than $240,000 or so.

This wasn’t the city’s decision. The giant California Public Employees Retirement System is in charge here, and it decided that most of the extra pay Serrano got once he became the full-time union chief — to make up for the overtime he wouldn’t be earning because he was no longer a working police officer — would not count toward his final pension calculation.

The city explicitly warned him that CalPERS had the final say on all this when he took the union rep job, but this apparently caught Serrano by surprise nonetheless. Serrano pressed the city for a high-paying job to make up the difference, and it said no, and, well, here we are.

Santa Ana police union President Gerry Serrano in 2016. (Photo by Bill Alkofer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Santa Ana police union President Gerry Serrano in 2016. (Photo by Bill Alkofer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Neither Serrano nor his lawyer responded to our request for comment on the latest developments, but his lawyer has said that linking the suits to the pension conflict is nonsense, and they have absolutely nothing to do with one another.

“They’re ignoring serious problems — raised by the Police Officers’ Association and other officers — as to what’s going on at the department, that they really need to address,” attorney Corey W. Glave told us by email in May.

The first suit still pending against the city, but no individual employees, alleges a host of sins, from sexual harassment to retaliation to violations of freedom of speech and labor laws. The powers-that-be played favorites in the police department, targeted critics in the union, ignored misconduct by those deemed loyal to the chief, and much more, it alleges.

The second suit still pending against the city, but no individual employees, concerns the release of confidential information about officers on paid leave that the union said should never have seen the light of day.

So the legal machinery grinds on. The city has filed “anti-SLAPP” motions — that stands for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation” — arguing that the legal action was aimed to intimidate, harass and burden city officials. And a tussle over the “hit piece” website — mainly targeting Valentin — goes on as well, and may blossom into a libel suit.

“Chief David Valentin has been fully vindicated by the Judgment he obtained against Gerry Serrano and the POA for the frivolous and defamatory lawsuit they filed for political and financial gain,” his attorney, Seymour B. Everett III, partner with Everett Dorey LLP, said by email.

“Thus far, Gerry Serrano and the POA have reimbursed the City 100% of the costs claimed by Chief Valentin. The City stands to recover an additional $143,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs the City was forced to incur by defending Chief Valentin in the frivolous lawsuit. … Chief Valentin rejected Gerry Serrano and the POA’s plea to waive fees incurred by the city and will hold them accountable for the defamatory and malicious statements that have tarnished the good reputation of the brave men and women who serve the City of Santa Ana.”

Not all Santa Ana police officers are happy with the union’s pursuits here, and how much they dig into the union’s pocket. More on that soon.

Source: Orange County Register

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