Coughlan dismissed a lawsuit Paul Miles brought against the city, saying Miles’ numerous complaints — including violations of the Public Records Act and Brown Act, an open-meeting law — were improper and unfounded.
Miles has publicly sought investigations into the behavior of police officers, two police chiefs and the city manager. He fought a one-man battle to, in his words, “see that the law is obeyed and our public officials are held accountable.”
He has repeatedly taken to the podium at City Council meetings to excoriate the highest levels of city management and elected leaders for their alleged complicity in what Miles called a “classic cover-up attempt.”
Miles was one voice speaking for openness at City Hall — the type of stirring underdog story that rouses those who demand good government.
But according to the district attorney’s office and Coughlan, Miles’ crusade never had much cause in the first place.
It all began in June 2008, when Miles’ son was in a bicycle accident. Miles found fault with a Tracy police officer’s representation of facts regarding the incident.
He was then dissatisfied with an investigation he requested into the officer who oversaw the report — Miles says there is proof the police department’s internal investigator misrepresented facts about the review and left out evidence relative to Miles’ complaint.
That led to at least two internal investigations, as Miles alleges former police Chief Janet Theissen and her replacement, Chief Gary Hampton, helped protect the internal investigator and ignored department policy.
Neither investigation concluded in Miles’ favor. Miles claimed a conflict of interest and a failure by the city to respond in a timely fashion.
The district attorney’s office then refused his request for an outside inquest, Miles said, and the attorney general’s office apparently passed, as well.
So Miles turned to the civil justice system, which is how he found himself last week before Coughlan and across from Richard Osman, an attorney from Bertrand, Fox & Elliot representing the city.
Not a lawyer by training, Miles presented court filings that were eloquent and extensive.
But they didn’t persuade Coughlan. He said that by asking him to act where the district attorney had not and to mandate new investigation guidelines for Tracy, Miles was asking the court to usurp the power of the government’s executive branch.
“I’ve never seen this happen before,” Coughlan said. “I do not believe I have the authority to override the D.A.”
He added later, “I just don’t legally see a basis for the petition.”
In court, Coughlan upheld the city’s version of the story — that the police agreed there were inaccuracies in the original report, but that there was no intent on the part of the city to deceive.
The judge dismissed Miles’ complaint that the city withheld public records rather than redacting and releasing the documents.
Coughlan also ruled that the city didn’t violate the state open-meeting law, though Miles alleged the city took action in closed session that wasn’t accurately described on the closed-session agenda.
City Manager Leon Churchill said the week after Coughlan’s ruling that the city did all it could to try and satisfy Miles.
Churchill said the city spent somewhere around $50,000 on investigations at Miles’ request. Churchill called it “a great expense to the Tracy taxpayer.”
Coughlan’s ruling appears to be the final step of Miles’ tango with Tracy, and the city must be relieved to be off its feet.
For Miles, the decision was having the last open door replaced by a brick wall.
Outside the courtroom, a stunned Miles said he was “just trying to hold people accountable.”
“My concern is that nothing is going to change,” he said.
It’s difficult to find a more noble cause than good government. Without accountability, government ceases to function for the public, instead enriching its own members and those in their favor.
Those like Miles who pursue accountability deserve applause. I’d even call such people patriots — government at all levels needs people who will rattle the cage and remind officials that it’s citizens who are supposed to run the show.
But sometimes even an effort based on best intentions can become a tilt at windmills.
Coughlan and the district attorney’s office are hardly the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. However, if you take them at face value, the city has been vindicated.
I have a great deal of respect for what Mr. Miles tried to do.
But in light of last week’s ruling, it would be hard to consider further action on his part as anything other than an obsession.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.