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Police union files lawsuit against Chamber, city (updated)

The Claremont Police Officer’s Association has filed a complaint against the city of Claremont and the Claremont Chamber of Commerce claiming its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated at this year’s Village Venture. The summons was served last week from the United States District Court Central District of California in a lawsuit brought forward by the CPOA.

According to the summons, by forcing the CPOA to shut down its booth at Village Venture, which is described as “a public event freely and openly accessible to the public,” the city and Chamber of Commerce acted to “chill the CPOA’s political speech in direct response to the [CPOA’s] activities in speaking to the public about the on-going contract negotiations with the city and handing out political literature.”

“We are not doing this for spite, we are not suing for money. We fight for others and now we are fighting for ours as well,” said Detective Robert Ewing, vice president of the CPOA. “We are just tired of being pushed aside.”

This is the second outstanding lawsuit issued by the CPOA against the city of Claremont within the past 5 months. In both cases the police union is being represented by attorneys from Lackey, Dammeier, & McGill, who Det. Ewing says urged them to file the second lawsuit.

“If someone doesn’t stand up for…those constitutional rights, whether First or Fourth, etc., they will be trampled,” said the CPOA’s attorney in the case Dale Nowicki. “Those rights will be taken away unless someone is held accountable.”

Police issued an Unfair Business Practice with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) in late September stating the city violated the Brown Act during its recent contract negotiations. The city responded to PERB in regards to the charge and is awaiting further notice, according to Claremont City Manager Tony Ramos, who declined to comment further on either litigation.

Detective Ewing informed Maureen Aldridge, Claremont Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer, that Claremont police officers, dressed in civilian clothes, wanted to set up a table to pass out flyers stating that the city was "not prioritizing public safety” during contract negotiations. As stated in the latest lawsuit, Ms. Aldridge told the POA that they could set up a station next to the Claremont Police Department booth on Village Venture at no additional charge.

However, as reported by the COURIER in the October 26, 2011 edition, the POA moved their table in order to keep the political issues of their tabling separate from the Claremont police booth, according to Officer Tami Pope. The lawsuit further states that Chief of Police Paul Cooper was the one that said they were “not allowed” to have a table next to what the summons refers to as the police department’s “command post.”

The police felt the Chamber was being strong-armed by the council, according to Mr. Nowicki.

“The assistant to the city manager [Colin Tudor] came by and saw the flyers. He left and moments later came back with a represent of the Chamber in conjunction with a sergeant.”

Ms. Aldridge and the sergeant notified the POA that they could not have their booth at the second location. The summons states that Ms. Aldridge said “there were no more acceptable locations, and that they could not have a booth at the event at all.”

The Claremont Chamber would not comment on the matter stating only that the booth was taken down and that Village Venture continued successfully without incident. Officers continued to pass out flyers throughout the day by walking around the event.

Det. Ewing’s account, however, is different from that stated in the summons. In an interview Thursday evening, Det. Ewing said the CPOA table had never been set up next to the main Claremont Police “command post.” He said he informed Ms. Aldridge at their meeting 2 weeks prior that their table needed to be kept separate because of its political nature and was told to keep the table within the general area. They set up their table about 100 yards away from the department’s main booth, according to Det. Ewing. Soon after the CPOA learned that Chief Cooper had received complaints about their tabling, Ms. Aldridge approached them and asked that their table be closed down, says Det. Ewing.

Ms. Aldridge said the chamber is “in the process of working with our insurance company and looking at hiring an attorney.” Requests for further comment were declined.

The city will discuss its plan of action with the lawsuit during closed session Tuesday, according to Mr. Ramos.

“We have turned [the lawsuit] over to our third party administrator and will be represented by the Joint Powers Insurance Authority,” he said.

Det. Ewing says the CPOA has felt it needs to take more drastic measures in order to have their voices heard.

“Anything we say seems to fall on deaf ears,” Det. Ewing said. “We just want more open communications with us and the city.”

The city must notify the CPOA on how they wish to proceed with the latest case by Wednesday, January 18, according to the summons.

—Beth Hartnett

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