By all outward appearances, the Baldwin Park City Council was in store for an uneventful meeting Feb. 1.
Nothing remarkable was on the council’s slim, five-item agenda when it convened for its regular public meeting at 7 p.m. Council members adjourned about an hour later, convening in closed session to discuss Police Chief Robert Lopez’s performance evaluation.
The City Council typically adjourns to a private meeting room for closed sessions. But because of concerns about gathering in tight quarters in the era of COVID, council members for a time now have instead cleared their chambers, locked the doors and held closed meetings sitting at their chairs at the public dais.
And that’s when the unremarkable became remarkable.
Because of a glitch in its secure Zoom system, City CEO/City Manager Enrique Zaldivar said, the audio signal from the closed meeting was broadcast to its online stream, allowing anyone in the public to eavesdrop on what were supposed to be confidential remarks.
As council members weighed in on the police chief’s accomplishments and deficiencies needing improvement in his department, Councilman Daniel Damian noted the “disaster” Lopez inherited when he took the interim chief position in July 2020 before later being appointed the position permanently.
Damian noted “problem officers” that were contributing to declining morale and instability within the Police Department.
“(Lopez) needs to make sure that he’s addressing the issues there that he has in the department. And let me tell you something, he has hands full. And, unfortunately, we’re gonna have those police officers that are con-continue (sic) to be a problem, they’ve been a problem for years,” Damian said.
“They’re a problem now. And they’re gonna continue to be a problem we as a city address these claims and these allegations that they have and either, terminate them, or whatever it is we have to do. Obviously legally, but we cannot continue to have certain police officers disrupt the rest of the department.”
Clearly, Damian’s comments were not something he would want broadcast to the masses.
Although he mentioned no officer by name, some officers believe Damian was singling them out because of a lawsuit they filed against the city in February 2022 alleging whistleblower retaliation and discrimination for reporting harassment and misconduct by other officers.
“After listening to council member Danny Damian state he wants to ‘Terminate’ police officers, it really put things into perspective,” said Officer Edwin Parra, one of six plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in an email to Councilwoman Jean Ayala dated Feb. 2, the day after the meeting. “It’s concerning to hear a council member with a plan to ‘Terminate’ a police officer for speaking out.”
Parra’s email, which was copied to Zaldivar and Councilmembers Damian, Alejandra Avila and Monica Garcia, tipped off city officials that the closed session meeting had been beamed out for all the public to hear. Damian said he forwarded the email to Mayor Emmanuel Estrada, who was not included in Parra’s original email.
Daniel Moussatche, the Riverside attorney representing the police officers in the lawsuit, said his clients believe the “fix is in” at the city to fire them at all costs.
“They now know that directions from the City Council are to find any reason to terminate them. This is clear retaliation for engaging in whistleblower activities for making complaints about harassment, discrimination and misconduct by other officers, including use of force,” Moussatche said in an email.
In a telephone interview, Damian and Estrada said Moussatche and his clients are exploiting what happened for shock value and to try to get a leg up in their litigation.
“Those words never came out of my mouth. I never said I had a plan to terminate anyone,” Damian said of Parra’s email. “These are false allegations. They are so accustomed to throwing things against the wall and see what sticks.”
Damian said Parra was not one of the officers he was referring to.
Zaldivar said in a statement that the closed session recording has since been taken down, and the City is conducting an assessment of its recording and online meeting posting procedures to ensure such an incident does not occur again.
“Comments from this confidential discussion have been selectively publicized,” Zaldivar said. “Pursuant to the requirements of the Brown Act and California law, the City will not comment on any confidential information discussed during any closed session.”