City of Costa Mesa settles legal dispute with former Police Chief Sharpnack for $585K

Rob Sharpnack with wife, Stephanie, center, during a July 1, 2015, swearing-in ceremony at Costa Mesa City Hall
Former CMPD Chief Rob Sharpnack, left, during a 2015 swearing-in ceremony. City officials have agreed to pay $585,000 to settle a dispute over Sharpnack’s 2019 departure.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

An ongoing legal dispute between the city of Costa Mesa and retired Police Chief Rob Sharpnack over his 2019 departure from the position has ended, after city officials agreed to pay $585,000 just days ahead of a scheduled jury trial.

According to a settlement agreement signed on Jan. 6, Sharpnack was set to receive full payment within 30 days, and both parties were released from any further claims they might make against one another.

Court records indicate the case, which sprung from a February 2020 lawsuit filed by Sharpnack, had been scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 10. Costa Mesa spokesman Tony Dodero said Tuesday the city was pleased to have settled the matter.

“We look forward to putting this issue behind us and believe this is in the best interests of Costa Mesa,” he said in a statement. “Allowing this issue to continue through the legal process would likely be more expensive and distract the city’s leadership from other priorities during a very challenging period.”

Sharpnack, who logged 26 years with the Costa Mesa Police Department and served nearly five years as chief before retiring in December 2019, claimed in a lawsuit two months after his departure he’d been essentially forced out of the position due to political infighting at City Hall.

Rob Sharpnack’s lawsuit, filed Thursday, alleges that city officials forced him out last year after he raised issues with the 2019 budget process. Sharpnack announced his retirement from the city in October and was gone shortly afterward.

In his complaint, the former chief alleged concerns he expressed about underfunding of police activities in the city’s proposed 2019-20 budget — along with publicly made comments about city officials’ lack of action and response — ultimately kickstarted an internal campaign to discredit him.

“Despite Sharpnack’s repeated disclosing of this improper interference to various city personnel … [the] city failed to investigate or properly respond to same and, to the contrary, retaliated against and attempted to humiliate and degrade Sharpnack,” the complaint alleges.

Sharpnack announced in October 2019 he would retire at the end of the year but later rescinded the act after deeming city officials did not properly respond to the news and, instead, made moves for his immediate dismissal. The city subsequently conducted an administrative investigation into his alleged “insubordinate” behavior, his complaint states.

In a May 23, 2019, memo to the City Council subsequently leaked to the local media, Sharpnack claimed a failure to properly fund the Costa Mesa Police Department would jeopardize public safety.

He lambasted the city’s budget development process as being uninformed, arbitrary and “saturated in secrecy,” accusations that fanned the flames of a dispute that would include publicized claims of impropriety, retaliation and toxicity from top city officials.

Costa Mesa’s top cop is crying foul over the city’s recent budget proposal, alleging that it shortchanges the Police Department in a way that imperils public safety.

City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison, hired in July 2019, along with City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow and former Mayor Katrina Foley and then-Mayor Pro Tem John Stephens were named in Sharpnack’s complaint as being involved in the alleged actions and conversations that took place prior to his departure.

Legal counsel representing Costa Mesa, in a May 2020 request to have portions of the case dismissed, objected to claims the city was in breach of contract, had violated Sharpnack’s right to due process and had retaliated against him.

The attorneys maintained he was an at-will employee who resigned but later attempted to rescind the declaration and displayed improper conduct, including once referring to Farrell Harrison in an email to her as being “self-centered” and defying instructions about how and when to announce his retirement.

“[The city] learned that plaintiff may have engaged in conduct that would constitute sufficient reason for his removal from the police chief position,” the document states. “Harrison viewed plaintiff’s actions as discourteous conduct and insubordination and believed that plaintiff’s misconduct warranted an investigation.”

While the settlement agreement describes the terms therein as a “good faith resolution of disputed claims,” it indicates that it does not serve as an admission by the city or any of its council members or employees of any wrongdoing, adding “the city specifically denies liability for any such claims.”

Attorneys for Sharpnack did not respond to requests for comment.

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