November 14, 2006 > Behind closed doors
Behind closed doors
by Steve Warga
In games of chance or in sports competitions, a move or gesture your opponent makes may tip you to his intentions is known as a “tell.” So, can be gleaned from Fremont City Manager Fred Diaz’ tell on February 22, 2005 when he introduced council agenda “item 4.2, Oral Communications. Diaz quite clearly glanced away from council and stuck his tongue into his lower left cheek in what appeared to be an attempt to suppress a grin. Did Diaz’ subconscious gesture signal complicity in a game of “Hide and Seek” with voters in the matter of the city’s new “Policy of Verified Response to Intrusion Alarms.”
Last week, TCV reported the story of an appellate court decision in favor of a lawsuit alleging violation of the state’s open meeting laws (“An alarming decision” TCV, 11/7/06). The city admitted to the facts of the lawsuit filed by J. Dennis Wolf, including acknowledging how council conspired to let Police Chief Craig Steckler introduce the new policy without properly noticing his appearance on that February 22 agenda. Word did get out, however, and a large and vocal group of citizens spoke their minds at that meeting.
The chips haven’t all fallen yet, but there appears to be no question Fremont City Council violated the Brown Act by deliberating in private and arriving at a consensus. Individual councilmembers may be subject to misdemeanor criminal prosecution, but that seems unlikely. In the matter of potential lawsuits alleging damages from lack of police response, California Government Code, Section 845 prohibits such actions: “Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure … to provide police protection service or, … for failure to provide sufficient police protection service.”
So, despite reaching a decision illegally, the city appears to be off the damages hook. That leaves only the matter of the policy itself. It will be nullified, but will council consider reinstating it via a properly-noticed process? City Hall is mum on this question, but considering the entire affair, a larger question arises and it’s deceptively simple in nature. Why all the bother?
Burglar alarm service calls were already low on the priority scale at Fremont PD. At that February 22 presentation last year, Steckler acknowledged, “The Police Department prioritized their calls for service and used existing resources as best we could.” He then informed the audience there were days when Priority 3 calls were ignored due to officer shortages. So why didn’t the city simply stop alarm response calls altogether without the hush-hush deliberations and subsequent attempt to sneak it all past the public? The answer remains a mystery, even today after all the court filings and considerations.
We do know that Diaz deferred to councilmembers in a decision that, as department policy, should have been his alone. Under Fremont’s “council-manager” form of government, it is within the city manager’s purview to oversee Police Department policies and procedures. Then why not make that decision and move on? The maneuverings and manipulations accomplished nothing more than to cast a pall of suspicion over city leaders.