Attorneys for the Record Searchlight and Shasta County made their first appearance in court Thursday in a case over releasing sheriff's office management records being withheld by the county.
The newspaper sued the county to obtain documents related to the management of the sheriff's office before former Sheriff Eric Magrini left the job to become the assistant county executive officer.
The lawsuit comes after the newspaper spent the past year requesting documents from the county under the California Public Records Act to shed light on what led Magrini to step down as sheriff in June 2021, leaving behind a department that had already been in turmoil for the past year.
The day after he left the sheriff's office under a cloud of no-confidence votes by his employees, Magrini assumed the new role as assistant CEO, a job that came with a 31% pay increase.
On Thursday, Shasta County Superior Court Judge Stephen Baker ordered attorneys to return to court Aug. 8 to further discuss the case, work out legal issues and determine how to proceed.
Walt McNeill, who is representing the paper, said he was pleased the case will be heard again in less than three weeks. Civil court cases often proceed at a slower pace, he said.
"You have to understand, for a court process this is like lightning speed compared to a regular civil case," he said.
The lawsuit filed in Shasta County Superior Court seeks the release of investigative reports and communications pertaining to the management of the sheriff's office under Magrini.
In response to four separate records requests from the Record Searchlight, County Counsel Rubin Cruse argued the materials are of a private nature and protected under California law that maintains confidentiality of peace officer personnel records, and that because they fall under "attorney-client" privilege, they are exempt from disclosure.
McNeill said the sheriff is an elected official who does not work for the Board of Supervisors, so the county's claims of confidentiality do not apply.
Assistant County Counsel Jim Ross said in court Thursday that the county plans to hire a private attorney to challenge releasing the documents.
On Wednesday, he had said the county complies with the public records laws and will continue to oppose releasing the documents the newspaper seeks.
"Preliminarily, what's indicated is the county is going to resist this as best they can. I think it's unfortunate that they are withholding, especially the reports and correspondence concerning (former) Sheriff Magrini's work," McNeill said.
Problems with Magrini's management style surfaced within six months after he was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in December 2019, according to statements from the Shasta County Deputy Sheriff's Association and Sheriff's Administrative Association.
More: Record Searchlight sues Shasta County over records related to Eric Magrini stepping down as sheriff
During the next year, morale in the department continued to decline, according to the DSA. And on Jan. 27, 2021, the union "overwhelmingly" voted that its members had no confidence in Magrini.
The Sheriff's Administrative Association, made up of captains and lieutenants in the department, sent a letter on Feb. 17, 2021, to the Board of Supervisors outlining "concerns with leadership, morale and potential illegal and unethical behaviors" by Magrini and then-Undersheriff Jason Barnhart.
Because of the issues raised by the two unions, the county hired a legal firm to investigate the complaints. But the county has refused to release any reports or communications associated with that investigation.
The management issues in the sheriff's office did not come to light until the DSA and SAA issued statements after Magrini stepped down in June 2021.
More: 'Serious misconduct': Whistleblower complaint blasting former sheriff, county officials, leaked online
A whistleblower letter sent April 8, 2021, to the company that investigated the department, also was not publicly released. However, most of that letter was leaked online in May of this year, more than a year after it was submitted to the county's investigator.
The whistleblower report, signed by then sheriff's Capt. Pat Kropholler, made allegations similar to the ones brought up by the two unions.
The whistleblower letter included numerous allegations, including:
Magrini misused a statewide law enforcement communication system to do a background check on former county CEO, Matt Pontes.
The former sheriff engaged in an alleged back-door deal to hire Pontes and have the county's personnel director take the top administrative post in Siskiyou County.
Magrini asked Kropholler to alter a report in an officer-involved shooting that would be unfavorable to a sergeant in the department.
The former sheriff worked with a local militia during a Black Lives Matter protest in Redding in June 2020.
After the Board of Supervisors did not give him a pay raise, Magrini retaliated against the supervisors by not providing requested security during their meetings.
Shortly before stepping down as sheriff, Kropholler was placed on administrative leave until he was cleared to return to work by Michael Johnson, who was appointed sheriff in July 2021.
County officials were advised not to comment on the report, but former Supervisor Leonard Moty denied the allegations, calling them "crazy" and "totally false."
More: Shasta deputy sheriff's union slams Eric Magrini for 'failures' on the job
Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight's resources and environment reporter. He is part of a team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!
This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: Lawsuit to obtain records about former Shasta Sheriff Magrini proceeds