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War of Words : Fillmore, Officials Target of Lawsuit in Newspaper Fight

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Never get into a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel, Mark Twain once warned.

But some Fillmore city officials apparently are not familiar with Twain’s admonishment. Either that, or they don’t care as they do battle with the 87-year-old weekly Herald and its publisher, Douglas G. Huff.

“They have done everything they can to put me out of business,” Huff said, including using the Northridge earthquake.

Hours after the earthquake, he said safety officials gave him 20 minutes to pack his things and clear out of his storefront newsroom, although no serious structural defects were ever detected in the building. After working for several weeks out of his garage, he was allowed to move back into the Central Avenue office.

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Inspectors said the evacuation was ordered that day for the safety of Huff and his employees.

“All of Central Avenue was closed by (sunrise),” said longtime City Councilman Roger Campbell, who ordered the evacuation. Campbell also serves as Fillmore’s assistant fire chief.

Before the earthquake, the Fillmore City Council snubbed the Herald and awarded publication of the city’s legal notices to an upstart weekly, the Fillmore Gazette. That was a bigger blow than the earthquake, Huff said.

The move allowed the Gazette to call itself “The Newspaper of Record for the City of Fillmore,” a title that Huff’s paper had held since the city incorporated in 1913.

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Huff wants the title back and has gone to court.

“It’s all nonsense,” Campbell said of Huff’s lawsuit and allegations. Mayor Linda Brewster agreed.

“The city has been caught in the cross-fire of a newspaper war,” Brewster said.

Two months ago, the City Council reaffirmed its desire to publish the city’s legal advertisements in the Gazette after its publisher agreed to print the advertisements for free.

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When bids were first submitted, however, the Herald had a lower bid. The City Council voided that round of bidding after it was revealed that the Gazette’s bid was opened early and was incomplete.

Huff contends that the City Council rigged the bidding to punish his newspaper for adverse coverage, dating back to a sexual harassment allegation that forced City Manager Stan Greene from office and divided the community seven years ago.

It was this issue that prompted Martin J. Farrell to start the Gazette in 1987.

“It’s sour grapes is all this is,” Farrell said.

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Huff brought suit against Fillmore, the City Council, City Manager Roy Payne and City Clerk Noreen Withers. He contends that the advertisement contract was awarded unfairly and with bias. He also names Farrell as a defendant. He asks for more than $300,000 in actual and punitive damages, plus attorney fees.

“Campbell and Withers have long resented (Huff) due to the newspaper’s extensive coverage of her 1988 sexual harassment lawsuit against the city and a former city manager, and its frequent criticism of Campbell and others at City Hall,” the suit contends.

The 28-page complaint alleges conspiracy, deceit and misrepresentation, bid rigging and unfair business practices, among other allegations.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s all water under the bridge,” Campbell said. Farrell’s deal to print the advertisements for free was “an offer Fillmore couldn’t refuse,” Campbell said.

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But Campbell and Withers agreed that they were upset with Huff’s handling of the sexual harassment case. Withers was one of three women who accused Greene of sexual harassment.

“He printed details that did not need to be printed,” Campbell said. Withers added that the coverage and the advertisement contract are not related.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” she said.

Withers settled her claim against the city in 1989, but would not disclose the details of the settlement.

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Huff is represented by Ventura attorney Daniel J. Schmidt, a former weekly newspaper publisher who passed the California State Bar in June.

“This is my first case,” Schmidt said.

Ostensibly, few dollars are at stake with the city contract. Before the Gazette agreed to publish the notices for free in September, the contract netted the newspaper a little less than $1,000 last year.

But both sides readily agree that the coveted “paper of record” title helps woo advertisers.

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The suit also represents the latest salvo fired in an increasingly bitter newspaper war.

“I think there is only room enough for one newspaper,” Huff said. “When you have a paper this old, I am not going to be the one to put it down.”

Farrell agreed.

“When this is all said and done, only one of us will be left,” he said. Farrell said he plans to countersue Huff for libel and slander, although nothing has been filed.

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“He is accusing me of crimes I did not commit,” Farrell said.

Meanwhile, the Herald seems to be winning the circulation battle. Two stores that carry both newspapers--Fillmore Liquor and Tipsy Fox Liquor--said the Herald sells better.

“The Gazette is a slow mover,” Fillmore Liquor owner Mithu Sran said.

But Farrell said his Gazette--which occupies a tiny, cluttered newsroom in temporary trailers on Central Avenue, mere yards from the Herald--is making headway every week. He said his circulation has jumped from 500 subscribers three years ago to more than 3,000 today. Huff claims 3,000 subscribers as well.

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Neither publisher’s circulation figures could be independently confirmed.


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