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Sacramento judge says city text deletions were ‘ill-advised,’ but not worthy of sanctions

Paul Petrovich versus the Sacramento City Council

Paul Petrovich has been working on the Crocker Village development in Curtis Park since 2003. Emails included as evidence in his lawsuit against the city show his relationship with a key councilman deteriorated into hostility. Photo by Andrew Seng
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Paul Petrovich has been working on the Crocker Village development in Curtis Park since 2003. Emails included as evidence in his lawsuit against the city show his relationship with a key councilman deteriorated into hostility. Photo by Andrew Seng

A Sacramento judge on Friday rejected developer Paul Petrovich’s request to sanction city officials for deleting emails and texts that might have been relevant in a lawsuit he filed against the city.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said in a written statement that it was “ill-advised” and “questionable” for some city officials, including former Mayor Kevin Johnson, to routinely delete emails and texts that were potentially relevant to a lawsuit.

But he said he “finds there is no evidence (that officials) intentionally destroyed communications relevant to the matter after receiving notice that such evidence should be preserved.”

Petrovich has sued the city, former Mayor Kevin Johnson and others for denying him a gas station permit in Crocker Village, a residential and commercial community he is building on a former railyard next to Curtis Park.

Kenny’s ruling on Friday represents just one battle in the larger lawsuit. A formal court hearing on the gas station denial is scheduled for December.

Petrovich contends City Council members colluded to deny him a fair hearing out of personal “animus.”

He argues that council members decided beforehand to vote against the permit request, despite the council’s legal obligation, acting as a “quasi-judicial body” in this matter, to keep an open mind before the vote.

Among other evidence, the Petrovich team has pointed to an internal city email from a Johnson aide saying Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents the district where the project is located, was confident he had lined up the votes to deny the permit. Petrovich attorneys said they didn’t get that email until recently, after city officials initially said they had provided all of the evidence that they knew of.

City officials say the council acted appropriately, and that the city is within its rights to deem the gas station inappropriate for that neighborhood.

During depositions this summer, Johnson and several officials acknowledged they erased city-related emails and texts from their private devices, but said they did it as a matter of course and did not destroy any potential lawsuit evidence as far as they remember.

Johnson said his emails are set to automatically delete after 30 days and that he habitually erases texts to declutter his personal cellphone, which he used as mayor for both personal and city business. When asked by Petrovich’s attorney during a deposition whether any deleted texts involved discussions of Petrovich or Crocker Village, Johnson said, “I don’t recall.”

Petrovich’s accusation comes two years after another judge in a different case, challenging the city’s financing of the downtown arena, admonished Johnson for erasing texts after being told not to by the city attorney.

The city legal team pointed out that they have complied with every request for available emails and texts, producing “reams” of communications to the court and to Petrovich’s team.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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