When city officials released a salacious, unsubstantiated, third-hand allegation of impropriety against the city's most notorious landlord, Eureka City Manager Greg Sparks says the action was meant to impart a message.
"We thought that it just added some gravitas in terms of what we are dealing with when it comes to Mr. Squires and his properties, and just the constant heroin use in some properties and some of the other illegal activities, and just his lack of being a responsible landlord," Sparks says.
It's no secret the city has been engaged in a bitter dispute with Floyd and Betty Squires for decades over conditions at their properties, including a lawsuit currently in its sixth year that seeks to wrest control of them away from the couple.But now the city's widely disseminated disclosure on Sept. 1 — which centers on the supposed motive for an arson last month at the Blue Heron Motel, allegedly an unfulfilled, goatish quid pro quo scenario between Floyd Squires and the woman suspected of the crime — could have other unintended legal ramifications.
Along with the press release, the city sent out the full police report from the arson investigation. From the report, it appears the allegation is completely unsubstantiated, coming from a friend of the suspect, and police never approached the suspect nor Floyd Squires for their sides of the story.
Nicholas Carroll, an expert witness in defamation cases who makes clear that he's not determining legality, says the contents appear to be problematic on a few levels. Beyond the accusation, those include referring to the arson suspect Kattie Yocum as a "perpetrator" and "couching opinion as fact" in describing the Squireses' track record.
He says the city had plenty of room to bring up specific facts about the Squireses' or even Yocum's previous actions to make a case about the challenges it faces in pursuing building code violations at their properties.
Instead, Carroll says, in his opinion, the city "tipped over the edge into defamation" and "harm of reputation." Perhaps the most potentially actionable item is the reference to Yocum, whose preliminary hearing to determine whether there is even enough evidence for her to face trial was scheduled to take place Tuesday afternoon, as the Journal was going to print.
"These are pretrial, preconviction statements," Carroll says, noting you just can't say a person has been convicted until "the verdict is in."
Reached at his office Tuesday, Floyd Squires says he has not seen the release, then refers any questions to his attorney when he's told about its contents, adding: "All I can say is it's completely unfounded and I don't even know a Kattie Yocum."
Sparks says the release's strong language and the decision to include the detailed police report were vetted by City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson.
"We just don't believe enough is being done to correct the deficiencies and, in essence, want to keep up that legal pressure until these things are resolved," he says during an interview on Friday.
Asked about the potential liability for the city, Sparks replies, "I think the report speaks for itself. I guess he can deny that allegation."
He did not immediately respond to a Tuesday follow-up email with questions specifically about the reference to Yocum.
The city manager says he has heard rumors of Squires allegedly intimidating his tenants over the years but he has no knowledge of a criminal investigation related to the information that was released.
After the release was sent out, the Eureka Police Department distanced itself from the disclosure, releasing a notice stating: "On behalf of Capt. [Brian] Stephens, the Eureka Police Department did not authorize the release of the arson investigation police report to the public. Any questions related to the report should be referred to the City Manager's office."
As a general rule, the city of Eureka fights the public release of police reports. Stephens, who was acting chief while interim Chief Steve Watson was on vacation, declined to comment further.
For his part, Mayor Frank Jager says he was out of town when the city's statement went out and he had not yet talked with Sparks when the Journal reached him by phone Tuesday afternoon.
"All I can say is I was a little surprised at the way things went down but I'm waiting to talk to the city manager and staff before I come to any conclusions," the mayor says.
Told that a defamation expert witness saw some red flags in the release, Jager responds that "there probably were," but says he has learned over the years there are sometimes explanations behind decisions.
"I wouldn't want to comment until I find out how it happened and why," he says.
In the past, Squires has called the city's court case against him an act of "retaliation" for a legal action he brought against Eureka and several officials, an action that was later dismissed.
The Squireses' attorney Bradford Floyd, who has repeatedly stated that the city is simply trying to run the couple out of town, was unusually sedate in his email response to the Journal.
"I have nothing to say regarding this matter," he writes. "We will address this through the judicial system rather than in the media."
Meanwhile, the Blue Heron was demolished last week along with another Squireses owned property at 815 H St. after both were declared public safety hazards.
"There is a section of the municipal code that talks about immediate dangerous conditions and those are the provisions that were utilized to demo those buildings, because of threat posed to occupants, whether they were supposed to be there or not ... and to first responders and the public," says Brian Gerving, the city's public works director and chief building inspector.
The H Street property, an older home that had seen better days, had caught fire at least three times in recent memory, Gerving says.
"During the most recent fire, there were people underneath the structure — it has a large crawl space — who didn't want to come out and make themselves known, so they were hiding underneath while the fire was burning and Humboldt Bay was working on it," he says.
Gerving says the receivership court case, in which 26 of the Squireses' properties are being overseen, is basically in the same place it was last year, with the judge approving another round of repairs on properties that have previously been crossed off as completed.
The case was slated for discussion in closed session during the council's meeting that was taking place as the Journal was going to press.
A round of new violations was found after the city served inspection warrants at 11 of those properties last month, issues the Squireses and their attorneys have said are tenant-caused due to the precarious nature of some of their rental clientele — often those with spotty histories and few funds.
Gerving says he sees a different picture, one of a landlord who tends to spur into action when the legal heat is on to make repair deadlines in the court case, but otherwise allows issues to languish.
"It's still where it's been," he says.
Moving forward, whether there will be any legal ramifications to the city's press release is difficult to say. But, Carroll notes, if a case does find its way to civil court over claims of defamation, he's pretty sure of one thing.
"It's going to be a messy, mudslinging trial," he says.
Kimberly Wear is a staff writer and assistant editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Public Works Director Brian Gerving's full name and title.