To the consternation of several Lemoore residents, the city council approved a “compromise and Release Agreement” that orders the city to rescind Council Member Holly Blair’s censure and pay her legal fees.
During a special afternoon session on April 25th the city council voted 4 – 1 to approve the Release Agreement, with Council Member Chad Billingsley voting no.
Legal problems between Blair and the City of Lemoore started when the city council censured Blair in August of 2018. This was followed up a few months later by a Cease and Desist letter demanding Blair stop publicly criticizing city employees. The city then filed a lawsuit that included a restraining order and an injunction to silence Blair’s public criticism of the Lemoore Police Chief and City Manager.
Lemoore presented their case three times to Kings County Superior Court Judge Kathy Ciuffini, asking the judge to issue a restraining order against Blair.
In response, Blair fled an ant-SLAPP suit in March.
According to Blair’s suit, “The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted to check a disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional right of freedom of speech and petition.”
The Release Agreement was negotiated April 23 by Lozano Smith, legal counsel for Lemoore, and The Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield, representing Blair. The agreement, negotiated in court, was then approved by Kings County Supreme Court Judge Kathy Cuiffini.
In exchange for Blair’s dropping her anti-SLAPP lawsuit, the city agreed to pay Melo and Sarsfield $38,000 in legal fees over the next 18 months.
The city was also ordered to lift the “restrictions set forth in the Censure and allow Respondent (Blair) to serve on committees and boards in her capacity as a City Council Member and to represent the City and Council at public functions in her official capacity on the same terms and condition as other City Council Members,” according to the agreement.
Blair was ordered in the agreement to “refrain from publicly making or adopting any negative comments about individual City employees or volunteers, including the City Manager.” Blair agreed to direct any criticism about individuals to the City Manager, who would then agendize her concerns to be discussed during closed session.
The agreement also made clear, though, that Blair is free to publicly criticize the city council, city departments, or the city government as a whole, consistent with her First Amendment rights.
In the spirit of transparency, the city of Lemoore revealed during the special session that it spent approximately $60,000 on Lozano Smith’s legal fees, bringing the total cost to the city to $100,000.
Lemoore Violates Terms within 24 Hours
In a case of déjà vu, the City of Lemoore violated the terms of the Release Agreement within 24 hours. A similar situation happened January 31 after a hearing involving this same case where Lemoore and Blair agreed not discuss the litigation with the press or on social media.
Nine minutes after the January hearing Lemoore posted details about the case on the city’s website.
Unlike the January incident, violating the current court sanctioned Release Agreement carries a $1000 fine – paid directly to Blair. The city will also have to pay Melo and Sarsfield’s legal fees if they decide to file a complaint against the city.
The violation to the Release Agreement happened April 26, the day after the city council approved the settlement. Police Chief Derrell Smith issued a statement to the Lemoore Leader implying the settlement was a legal victory for the city.
In his statement to the Leader he wrote, “Lemoore Council Member Blair’s inability to control her own public speech and follow the lawful practices and procedures available to her as a member of the Lemoore City Council unfortunately brought us here, where we are today. Yesterday, the Lemoore City Council approved a settlement with Council Member Blair. While it is disappointing that a city would ever be put in such a position to have to force honor, professionalism and a willingness to abide by the City’s administrative and procedural processes onto an elected official of local government, the City of Lemoore was put in that untenable situation…I remain hopeful that it (the release agreement) will continue, to force professionalism and compliance with the City’s administrative processes onto the elected official, who has shown that she would not otherwise feel so restrained.”
Under condition #11 of the Release Agreement it states “the Parties agree to issue the Joint Statement attached hereto as Exhibit A following execution of this agreement and approval of the Court. No other comments regarding this litigation shall be made except as required by law.”
When reached for comment, Marguerite Melo, Blair’s attorney, indicated that she had just learned of Chief Smith’s statement, but had no further comment at this time.
Discontent among the residents
During public comment residents expressed their outrage at the settlement.
Brian Castodio, a long-time business owner in Lemoore, said the only winners in this case were the lawyers. He criticized the legal advice of Lozano Smith and criticized the council for following it. He said that if the money were coming out of the council’s pocket everyone would have had a different attitude.
Susie Banuelos reminded the city council why they censured Blair in the first place and implored them to not approve the settlement. “I don’t think that kowtowing to lies, manipulation, and false characterizations of you and all of us, of our police chief, city manager, is the way to go.”
“You are paying her legal fees to slander and bad mouth all of us and wreck our town’s reputation,” she said.
Banuelos asked that at a minimum to please keep in place Blair’s censure.
Connie Willashom said, “I have no words about how disappointed I am…and Ms. Blair sitting there smirking is really something.”
Council members were unable to respond because of the condition not to publicly discuss the litigation. Council Member Stuart Lyons did encourage the disgruntled residents to read the document carefully, implying that the settlement was not a complete win by Blair.
Blair reiterated that all of the money awarded was to go to her lawyers.
That will change though If Police Chief Smith’s comments to the Lemoore Leader are found to be in violation of the settlement.
This is the second known instance that Lozano Smith has lost an anti-SLAPP suit. The law firm also represents the City of Greenfield and took the Monterey Weekly to court last August seeking a TRO that would prohibit the paper from publishing the law firm’s memos. The Monterey Weekly then filed an anti-SLAPP suit and prevailed.
Greenfield lost its case and the city had to pay the Weekly‘s attorney’s fees.