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Sex-Harassment Settlement Brings Sighs of Relief : Lawsuit: Female plaintiffs, defenders of Newport Beach Police Department say agreement signals fresh start. The $1.2-million pact ends turmoil that toppled chief and a captain and tarnished city's image.

November 11, 1994|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — The women who accused the Newport Beach Police Department of sexual harassment and the people who defended the department as the bitter case dragged on for more than two years said Thursday they felt the same thing: Glad it's over.

"I'm just looking forward to getting on with the next chapter of my life," said Margaret McInnis, 41, a former communications supervisor who will receive $100,000 as part of a $1.2-million out-of-court settlement announced Wednesday.

"It's just a nice sense of relief that we don't have to get dragged through this anymore," echoed Capt. Jim Jacobs, a 26-year veteran of the embattled department who was acting chief for a year after the harassment suit was filed.

And City Manager Kevin J. Murphy, who was embroiled in the controversy just months after stepping into the job, was thrilled to realize that all he has left of the case is a scrapbook stuffed with newspaper clippings and the "chauvinist pig" award the National Organization for Women gave him during one of many protests at City Hall.

There is also a huge stack of bills: the city has spent $3.3 million on the case.

"Somehow I just don't have that sense of feeling good about it (being over). . . . It isn't something I'd recommend to anyone," Murphy said. "It's an obscene amount of money, but the time and the energy that has gone into this thing . . . is really amazing. It's time to move on."

Still, the legacy of the lawsuit remains.

A new chief now runs the Police Department with a more laid-back, softer style, and every city employee will undergo a three-hour sensitivity training workshop annually at a cost of about $40,000.

What's more, a city known mostly for its beaches and glitzy shopping center was plagued by publicity about its dirty laundry, with CBS' television newsmagazine, "48 Hours," making Newport Beach the centerpiece of a show on sexual harassment.

The saga began in September, 1992, when four women filed suit against the city, Chief Arb Campbell and Capt. Anthony Villa. They alleged that the department was "a hotbed of sexually offensive behavior" and complained of being fondled and propositioned at work.

Seven more women filed lawsuits, including a former dispatcher who charged that Campbell and Villa had raped her after a police party in 1981. Four police officers and an animal control officer were among the plaintiffs. Another eight female employees of the department were given cash settlements to ward off further legal battles; many of them remain on the job.

Of the money the city has spent, about $1 million went for settlements with female employees. Another $400,000 was for worker's compensation claims to them and Campbell and Villa. The rest, some $1.9 million, went to attorneys and investigators.

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Campbell and Villa were fired, then reinstated and forced to resign. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

"One thing I learned is when you enter the world of city politics and attorneys and economics, things like truth and justice--they at best became abstract terms," Villa said in an interview Thursday.

"I'm quite relieved that it's over. It's been two years of a lot of turmoil for a lot of people," he added. "Everybody has to get on with their lives, on both sides, and the Police Department has to get on with its job. And I'm retired."

Several of the women involved in the lawsuit have moved out of state, hoping to escape rumors about the case. The latest settlement package heads off a trial scheduled to start in February and prevents the plaintiffs from returning to work at the department.

McInnis, a single mother of three, said Thursday she is considering going back to school to become a paralegal. Mary Jane Ruetz, a former records supervisor who spent more than two decades in police work, said she will likely head back to school for a degree and eventually move to Colorado to be with relatives.

"I started as a $597-a-month dispatcher at age 21 and worked my way up, and that's not easy to do for a woman who doesn't have a degree," Ruetz said Thursday. "Now that's gone, and it hurts. It's real difficult to think about not having a career."

Ruetz, who will receive $360,000--the largest single payout--in the settlement, said her only regret in regard to the case is that she didn't speak up sooner.

"I've learned that probably you should say something right away instead of letting it fester inside of you and make yourself nuts," Ruetz said. "I think in the long run it's helped the department, sure. Because the two main instigators aren't there anymore. Things are a lot better than it used to be."

Police Department employees were briefed about the settlement Wednesday before it was made public. Though some officers groused about the size of the settlement, and others complained that the city was in effect conceding that Campbell and Villa are guilty, the overwhelming sentiment was the proverbial sigh of relief.

"There are mixed feelings based on whomever you supported at the time," said Sgt. Trent Harris, who has been on the force 16 years. "There was more training done on the harassment issues, which made people more aware. But for the most part, people here were pretty aware anyway."

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