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Grand jury report validates our questions about former police chief ’s departure

Editor's column
By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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It’s not easy being persistent with city officials when they refuse to provide information that the pubic has a right to know.

But our job is to report the stories, both the positive and the negative about the city. That means we give ourselves a little pep talk when we have to make yet another unsuccessful call and send another unanswered email to officials when questions haven’t been addressed.

Even though that sometimes makes us the most unpopular individuals at Lincoln City Hall. It’s not a good feeling, of course, to know that others are unhappy with us. However, we did not become reporters to win popularity contests.

Our No. 1 priority, for about four months starting in July 2016, was asking Lincoln City Manager Matt Brower and City Council members if Lincoln Police Chief Rex Marks quit or was fired and details about Marks’ departure.

We asked repeatedly for Marks’ severance package, the Lincoln Peace Officers Association’s list of concerns regarding Marks and the final report on Marks’ investigation.

Unfortunately for us, and scores of residents asking about Marks’ departure, city officials refused to provide the requested info. At the advice of media law attorneys, we even filed a California Public Records Act request last July, a first for our newspaper, to obtain information supposedly accessible to the public.

Brower and interim city attorney Leslie Walker denied that request 13 days later.

So The Lincoln News Messenger editorial team felt validated by the Placer County Grand Jury’s report, “Lincoln City Government Transparency. What Happened to Our Police Chief? The People Want to Know,” released two weeks ago.

The June 23 report stated that the city of Lincoln “should make every effort to be more transparent with its citizens.”

In fact, the report’s summary said, “Based on this review, the Grand Jury acknowledges the City was within its rights to accept the Chief’s resignation. However, the Grand Jury believes the City could, and should, be more transparent in providing additional information to City residents while remaining in compliance with legal restrictions on the release of confidential personnel information.”

Just as the newspaper questioned why Marks received a severance settlement of $84,666.13, so did the grand jury. Under Marks’ employment agreement, he was to receive no severance if he resigned. The city manager, however, told the newspaper last summer that Marks resigned.

The grand jury report found, “It was clearly stated in the employment agreement that the Chief would not be entitled to severance upon his resignation. However, in the Settlement Agreement the City of Lincoln granted the Chief all the severance benefits listed in the employment agreement.”

The newspaper’s questions to city officials last year on this discrepancy were not answered, although the city attorney said we would receive a letter explaining why Marks received severance money. That explanation was never given.

The grand jury’s recommendations were congruous with what we pushed for last year. Those recommendations are that the city of Lincoln “… adhere to all terms of employment agreements they negotiate and not make generous settlements when not required and justified” and that the city “… release a copy of the Settlement Agreement they negotiated with the Police Chief to the public they serve.”

The city manager must respond to the grand jury on the two recommendations listed above by Aug. 31 and the City Council must respond by Sept. 30. It will be interesting to see what the city manager’s and the City Council’s responses will be.

While Marks has been gone a year and the public has moved on to other issues, we can learn from past mistakes. Let’s hope that the city manager and council members learn to honor the public’s right to know.