In what apparently is the first case of its kind, a San Francisco judge has upheld a move by state officials to fine two California Coastal Commission staff members for mistreating a private citizen who sought a building permit from the agency.
The fines--a 10% reduction in salary for three months--were imposed by the State Personnel Board under a little-known law that allows citizens to seek punishment for state employees who treat them incompetently, inefficiently or discourteously.
Such misconduct can and has been punished by state authorities on their own initiative. But attorneys in the case said that to their knowledge, this was the first instance in which penalties have been rendered based on a citizen’s formal complaint.
List of Grievances
A Mendocino County businessman charged that the two commission employees failed to return telephone calls, lost documents he filed with the agency, neglected to notify him of a public hearing on his application and made inaccurate statements in a staff report on the proposed project.
The Personnel Board, adopting the findings of an administrative law judge, upheld the charges and issued the fines. The commission and the two employees then filed suit challenging the action--but this week it was announced that Superior Court Judge Maxine M. Chesney had ruled against them, finding that there was “substantial evidence” to support punishment by the board.
Commission attorneys denied that there was adequate proof to support the businessman’s allegations and said the issue would be taken next to the state Court of Appeal.
They expressed concern that if Chesney’s decision is upheld, it could lead to intimidation or harassment of state employees and invite disgruntled citizens to file complaints simply out of displeasure with the results of official actions.
“There is a potential for dissatisfied parties to unfairly retaliate against employees,” state Deputy Atty. Gen. Dennis M. Eagan said Friday. “In turn, some employees might decide to avoid any potential conflict, figuring it’s just not worth going to the mat.”
However, Anthony T. Caso, an attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation who represented the businessman in the case, said the ruling had “breathed vitality” into the little-used law providing for disciplinary action based on citizens’ complaints.
‘Avenue for Action’
“When a state agency either doesn’t know about misconduct or turns its head away from misconduct, this law gives private citizens an avenue for action,” he said.
Caso added that state employees would have “nothing to fear,” because any complaints would be investigated independently by the state before a hearing was granted, thus providing procedural protections for accused workers.
Foundation President Ronald A. Zumbrun added that the decision “guarantees that action can be taken when overzealous bureaucrats violate principles of fairness and good faith.”
The case arose in 1980 when Marvin Paoli of Ft. Bragg sought to build a 10-unit inn and private residence on a 20-acre parcel of coastal land he owns. The commission gave its approval, but only on the condition that Paoli set aside one-third of the land for open space to protect the area’s scenic beauty.
Paoli objected to the condition and in a separate case that ended in 1986, lost his bid to obtain a permit free of the open-space requirement.
Meanwhile, the businessman charged in a letter to the Personnel Board that in trying to negotiate over the issue, the two commission staff members, Richard G. Rayburn and Eugenia J. Laychak, were uncooperative and acted in bad faith in dealing with him.
Among other things, Paoli said, written testimony he sent for presentation to the commission was lost; he and his attorney were not mailed a notice of a public hearing on the issue until the day it was held, and a staff report contained inaccurate statements about the project that led the commission to reject his request.
In 1984, Administrative Law Judge James C. Waller upheld Paoli’s allegations and recommended that Rayburn and Laychak suffer pay reductions totaling $1,800.
Need for Care Cited
Waller wrote that while imposing open-space requirements on a landowner was sometimes necessary, state employees “must realize they are in effect confiscating part of the citizen’s property. Therefore, they should be very careful to treat the citizen in a completely open and fair manner.”
After the board upheld Waller’s findings, the commission and the two employees filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court, calling the fines “absurdly severe” in light of the workers’ otherwise unblemished records.
The board urged that its action be upheld, saying there were “more than ample” grounds for disciplining the employees.
Rayburn, who served as director of the commission’s North Coast district, and Laychak, who was a program analyst for the commission, have since left to work for other state agencies.