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L.B. Council Compromises on Data From Police Suits

February 22, 1990|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — The City Council reversed itself this week and agreed to provide the Public Safety Advisory Commission with part of the information it had requested on money paid out in police-related lawsuits over the last three years.

The council decided not to provide the requested case-by-case breakdown but compromised by agreeing to send information on settlements and judgments involving all city departments, including police, when amounts exceed $25,000.

That translates to less than 15 cases a year for the city, including police, city attorneys said.

The city has about 500 personal-injury lawsuits pending at any one time, with 20% to 25% of those likely to result in settlements, Assistant City Atty. Robert E. Shannon said Wednesday.

Long Beach wins most lawsuits filed against it, Shannon said. An estimated 20% to 25% of them involve the police, according to City Atty. John R. Calhoun.

Not everyone involved in the controversy over compiling the information embraced the compromise, which was proposed by Calhoun and Councilman Tom Clark.

For commissioners, who had hoped that such information would help them spot patterns and problem areas, the compromise was far from what was requested. The panel wanted a list of all police-related settlements and judgments.

Commission members echoed concerns of other community leaders, who criticized the council for secretly settling a $330,000 police brutality lawsuit in December. While council members denied trying to hide the settlement, they nonetheless agreed two months ago to note publicly any final settlement approved in closed sessions.

"We did ask for much more than what you seem agreeable to providing," Commissioner Barbara Shoag told the council before its Tuesday vote.

Fred Kugler, a spokesman for Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, said: "I think it's the best we could get out of the council."

"The public will now have a better idea of the nature of settlements, but in terms of evaluating trends, the information won't be adequate," he said after the meeting.

The compromise also failed to satisfy members of the council, who last week denied the request for information on the grounds that it would take too much time and cost too much for city staff members to compile.

The information, they said, is available to anyone willing to do the legwork to dig it up and would not provide clear evidence of patterns, because settlements do not always mean someone did something wrong.

"The ability to categorize or come up with patterns is next to impossible," Councilwoman Jan Hall said.

Hall said that the commission will look for trends by reviewing about 45 cases and that just some of those will involve police.

"I think that's crazy," Hall said. "I don't think that makes sense."

Councilman Jeff Kellogg agreed with Hall, and both voted against ordering city staff to compile the data. Joining Clark--the only councilman who supported the commission's request last week--were Councilmen Evan Anderson Braude, Wallace Edgerton, Ray Grabinski, Warren Harwood, Les Robbins and Clarence Smith.

But most of the councilmen said they were changing their votes not because they support the compromise but because of the public outcry that their vote generated last week.

Community leaders were outraged that the council had refused to help the commission gather the data. Although council members insisted that the information is public and available to anyone, commissioners said they have neither the resources nor the knowledge to gather the information themselves.

In essence, they said, the council's refusal to help was tantamount to denying them the information.

Council members repeated Tuesday that they are not trying to hide any settlement. Nonetheless, the majority changed its vote to appease critics.

"Once again, the council will take a position based on newspaper reaction," said Edgerton, referring to an editorial in the Press-Telegram that criticized the council for its original vote.

In casting his vote, Harwood alluded to the upcoming election and said the Public Safety Advisory Commission is taking advantage of the "political season." Four of the nine council members face re-election. Harwood and Grabinski are unopposed.

"The council is being put in a squeeze," with the impression that to deny the commission's request is the same as denying access to public records, Harwood said.

He questioned whether this would set a precedent that would encourage other commissions and committees to ask the city to compile other information, such as: "How many homes have tile roofs?" Harwood said.

Grabinski, who was strongly opposed to the commission's request, voted for the compromise, but even as he announced his vote he added: "I hope it doesn't pass."

Last week, council members said they feared that the commission would second-guess their decisions. The council, on the advice of the city's attorneys, makes final decisions on what cases to settle out of court and for what amounts.

At the time, community activists called the council's refusal to help the commission gather the information "atrocious" and "the supreme insult to the constituents."

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