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Former police chief wins case against Chowchilla

Chowchilla illegally fired a former police chief and now the city has to pay him, according to a ruling Tuesday by the 5th District Court of Appeal.

The court upheld a lower court ruling that former police chief John Robinson was removed from his position in violation of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act.

The court awarded Robinson $50,000 plus prejudgment interest, and ordered a Madera County Superior Court judge to review whether the city of Chowchilla must also pay for Robinson's legal fees.

"Justice is finally approaching for Chief Robinson, although it has not been completed," said Robinson's attorney, Barry Bennett with the law firm Bennett & Sharpe. "The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting this suit, filing frivolous appeals and engaging in numerous delaying actions, all the while taking contradictory positions at different times."

The Chowchilla City Attorney's office declined to comment.

Robinson was hired by the city of Chowchilla in 1997 under a contract that automatically renewed every three years. If the city wanted to terminate the contract, it was required to give notice six months in advance of the renewal date. Robinson's contract rolled over for an additional three years in September 2000.

In 2003, before Robinson's contract renewed for another three years, then-city administrator Nancy Red informed him the city wanted to renegotiate his contract. In September 2003, Robinson was removed from his position as police chief.

When and how Red first told Robinson about the possibility his contract might not be renewed has been the subject of legal proceedings for eight years.

Red said she put a letter stating the city's intention on Robinson's chair in March 2003. Robinson said Red didn't officially inform him of the city's intentions until June, less than four months before the contract was set to renew.

The state appeal court sided with Robinson and instructed Madera County Superior Court to review whether Robinson's lawsuit set a precedent significant to the public interest. If it does, the city of Chowchilla could be legally forced to pay for Robinson's legal fees, which total more than $200,000.

Justice Betty Dawson, writing for the court, said, "We conclude that this litigation ... enforced an important right affecting the public interest and conferred a significant benefit on the general public and a large class of persons."

That law protects people who wish to challenge unfair practices but may not have resources to take on deep-pocketed public and private institutions, Bennett said. "If a private citizen is suing to enforce a right that benefits the public in general, and he or she wins, then he or she shouldn't have to bear the cost of the preceding," he said. "It would be unfair if a public agency, using taxpayer money, could keep spending that money until a private individual could no longer maintain that action."

Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley will review the case in the spring.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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