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Torrance OKs Private Appeals by City Workers

Times Staff Writer

Torrance city employees facing discipline may appeal such actions in private, the City Council decided this week.

Disciplinary actions against city workers have long been confidential, but until a code amendment was approved Tuesday, any appeals of those actions--including firings, suspensions and other discipline--had to be done at public hearings before the Civil Service Commission.

The City Council voted unanimously to allow the city’s 1,400 employees--including three police officers fired last fall after they allegedly lied about the shooting of an unarmed man--to decide whether their hearings should be public.

Police Officer Fired

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The council made the change at the request of Timothy Thornton, one of the three officers fired for allegedly lying to superiors about the shooting of construction worker Patrick Coyle, whose arm was left partly paralyzed. Court documents filed in a related criminal case allege that Officer Timothy Pappas accidentally shot Coyle and then fabricated a story, along with Thornton and Officer Mark Holden, to make it appear that Pappas fired his gun only after Coyle moved suddenly.

All three officers were scheduled to appear, in public, before the Civil Service Commission to ask for reinstatement. Thornton’s hearing was scheduled to begin first, on April 10.

Thornton’s lawyer, Cecil Marr, demanded that the city hold the hearings in private, saying that state laws protect individual privacy and prevent excessive public scrutiny of police officers’ personnel files. Marr also pointed to the state’s public meeting law, which permits public agencies to meet behind closed doors to discuss personnel matters.

Torrance’s new policy is in line with those in many other cities. But officials in a few cities, including Los Angeles, interpret state law differently and argue that the public’s interest in how police are disciplined takes precedence over the officers’ right to privacy.

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Public Hearings

The case of Torrance Officer James Lynch illustrates the implications of having such hearings in public.

Lynch and his partner were accused in a citizen’s complaint last year of using excessive force after they were videotaped choking and beating a 20-year-old man, apparently into unconsciousness. The case is pending.

In 1980, Lynch had been fired for what Police Chief Donald Nash called “a propensity toward overaggressive behavior,” and the Civil Service Commission upheld the dismissal on a public 4-2 vote. Lynch appealed to the City Council, which overturned his firing, again in a public vote.

The press and public were able to obtain information about the previous excessive force allegations against Lynch because those hearings were public.

Torrance City Council members said Tuesday that their primary concern was employees’ privacy. “An employee should be able to choose whether they want an open or closed hearing,” said Councilman Dan Walker. Walker said the code amendment will benefit all employees, not just the fired police officers.

A city staff report, which recommended the change, said the new policy will protect employees from “undue publicity and embarrassment.”

The Los Angeles Times, in a letter to the council, expressed concerns about the proposed change. The newspaper argued that if a change were approved, the commission should decide on a case-by-case basis, rather than routinely closing appeal hearings.

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That is what the commission had requested--the ability to close hearings--and that position was briefly supported by Councilman Tim Mock, who suggested that all hearings be open unless employees show “good cause” for closing them.

Up to Employees

But the council went a step further and decided that the employee should choose. Walker said employees should not have to “jump through any hoops to get a closed hearing.”

Mock then voted with the rest of the council to amend the code to say that disciplinary hearings before the Civil Service Commission “shall be open and public unless an employee requests that they be closed.”

The code amendment was passed as an emergency ordinance, which means it takes effect immediately rather than after 30 days. That will entitle Thornton, Pappas and Holden to closed hearings.


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