Highsmith files claim against city
City Attorney Teresa Highsmith has filed a damage claim accusing city officials of putting her on leave in retaliation for her role in a leaks investigation of Councilwoman Lena Tam. The claim is considered a prelude to a lawsuit.
The claim follows a similar one filed by Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant on Thursday.
Highsmith is accusing city officials of illegally retaliating against her for her role in the investigation and of Brown Act violations, defamation and emotional distress, according to a claim her attorney submitted to the city Tuesday. She is seeking more than $10,000 in damages, though an exact amount wasn’t disclosed.
The council voted 5-0 on December 28 to place Highsmith on paid administrative leave, though she specifically names Tam and Mayor Marie Gilmore in her claim. Council members didn’t publicly offer a reason for placing Highsmith on leave, though they said they learned a week earlier that she had taken a contract job as interim city attorney for the City of Barstow.
“She took another job,” Gilmore said Tuesday when asked for comment on Highsmith’s claim.
In the fall of 2009, then-Mayor Beverly Johnson and then-Vice Mayor Doug deHaan had asked Highsmith to look into what they believed were closed session leaks from a council member to SunCal, the claim says. (Johnson confirmed Tuesday that she had raised that concern.)
Highsmith tried to stop Tam from offering a legal position she said mirrored one held by then-Alameda Point developer SunCal’s during a March 16, 2010 City Council meeting, which she said prompted Tam to send critical e-mails to Highsmith and other council members and to call for Highsmith’s job performance to be reviewed.
The claim says that Tam and Gilmore agreed via e-mail to prepare a negative performance review for Highsmith and that Gilmore repeatedly sought to put a review of Highsmith’s performance on the council’s agenda, but the review never took place.
After the March meeting, Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant authorized a leaks investigation into Tam, which became public in July.
Gilmore made “hostile and negative” comments about Highsmith’s legal opinions in the weeks after Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced she would not pursue a case against Tam, the claim says, asking for an audit of the costs of the investigation and saying Highsmith’s role in it would be a factor in her performance review. Gilmore also asked that an outside expert be retained to provide Brown Act training to council members instead of Highsmith and she questioned Highsmith’s handling of a worker’s compensation claim.
After she was elected mayor, Gilmore told Highsmith she no longer wanted to work with her and that she would have to leave the city attorney’s job, the claim says. Gilmore said Tuesday that Highsmith came to her in December and said she wanted to retire.
After she was placed on leave without explanation, the claim says, Highsmith – who still works for the city – was locked out of her city computer, had her city-issued cell phone disconnected, and was told to turn in her keys to City Hall and to retrieve her personal belongings under supervision.
The actions constitute an involuntary suspension given in violation of the Brown Act and Highsmith’s due process rights, the claim says.