Oakdale officer suing in flap over response to mayor's call

OAKDALE -- A police sergeant who the chief says took too long to respond to a low-priority call from the mayor in May is fighting a four-day unpaid suspension.

Sgt. Michael Eggener is suing the city, its police chief and city manager because he said the city hasn't allowed him to appeal the reprimand. Lisa Aguiar, the city's attorney in the case, said Eggener was given a chance to appeal and he didn't.

Eggener, 51, is an 18-year veteran of the department who was given a certificate of valor last summer for saving an elderly woman from a burning building. He would not comment on the lawsuit, nor would city officials.

The case stems from a call Mayor Farrell Jackson made for police assistance last spring. Eggener took 43 minutes to respond.

About a week before the Oakdale Chocolate Festival, a group of organizers and media were at an early morning promotional event for the festival at the Oakdale Cowboy Museum when a man started heckling the group. Jackson called the police and asked them to move the man, who was yelling obscenities.

Mary Guardiola, the festival's chief executive officer, was there. "I don't remember if I really felt threatened," she said, "but it was uncomfortable."

Jackson reported the harassment at 5:54 a.m., before kicking off the Chocolate Festival on News 10's morning program. Eggener was notified a minute later.

Chief Marty West would not say who classified the call as low priority. Generally, the person who takes the call and dispatches it to the commanding officer would prioritize the call, according to other cities' police departments.

Almost 45 minutes passed before Eggener went to the scene, which was four blocks from the station.

A few things led to the delay, said Doug Gorman, who is representing Eggener for the police union Operating Engineers Local No. 3. The call came in during a shift change, when the night crew was punching out and the crew coming on had yet to be briefed. Eggener's shift didn't start until 6 a.m., Gorman said.

Before responding to the call, Eggener briefed his crew, which is done at the start of every shift. That day, Eggener had a new department policy to explain, Gorman said.

An Oakdale police crew generally consists of two officers and a commander.

When Eggener arrived at the scene, he talked to the man who was upsetting the crowd and the man left.

"It was not a priority call," Gorman said. "The guy is across the street yelling at you? He has a right to free speech."

Twenty-four days after the incident, West notified Eggener that he would be suspended without pay for four days for failing to take reasonable action. Under city policy, Eggener had 14 days to respond to his suspension notice.

Gorman said he notified West the next day that he'd be representing Eggener. Gorman said he asked for a hearing on Eggener's behalf, but it was not granted.

Violated police Bill of Rights?

That's what landed the case in court. Eggener served his four-day suspension starting June 28, even though he disagreed with it and is fighting it. Neither city officials nor Eggener will say how much the suspension cost him or how much he makes, but Oakdale sergeants make $27.66 to $33.61 per hour, plus benefits. Four days of lost pay would mean $885.12 to $1,075.52, if he works eight-hour days.

Eggener claims West, City Manager Steve Hallam and the city violated the Police Officer Bill of Rights by failing to hear his appeal. Sanctions against cities that violate the bill include a $25,000 penalty.

Christopher W. Miller, Eggener's lawyer, says Eggener and Gorman unknowingly followed the wrong appeal procedure. Eggener asked for an "adjustment board hearing," at which three police officers hear an appeal. That is the process the city offered him, Miller said.

Miller said his firm was the first to point out that Eggener should have asked for an "arbitration hearing," which is heard by one police officer who is mutually chosen by each side. For an adjustment hearing, each side chooses one officer and both sides mutually choose an officer.

"So either they knew and let him appeal down the wrong path or, worse, they didn't even know," Miller said. "Under either system, every appropriate deadline was met."

Can't start over

Aguiar, the city's attorney, said by the time Eggener had asked for the appropriate hearing, he was 50 days beyond the deadline to appeal the suspension.

"He basically wants to undo what's been done and start over," she said. "Our position is, you can't do that."

Oakdale police generally respond to low priority calls in 12 minutes, according to West. He would not discuss Eggener's case but did say Eggener is not the only officer who has been disciplined since he took over as police chief a year ago.

Gorman said the suspension was out of proportion. "There shouldn't have been a discipline at all because there are no set standards for a (low-priority) call," he said.

When asked about the case, Mayor Jackson said the city attorney has advised him not to comment.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge William A. Mayhew, who heard the case Wednesday, hasn't ruled. Unless Mayhew decides he needs more information, he will order the city to allow Eggener to appeal his suspension, decide Eggener missed his chance, or rule that the city has to pay Eggener $25,000 for failing to hear his appeal.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.