Petitioner calls Pacific Airshow settlement ruling a win for transparency in government

People stand along the Huntington Beach Pier at the Pacific Airshow on Sept. 30, 2022.
Hundreds of people stand along the Huntington Beach Pier to watch the opening ceremonies of the Pacific Airshow on Sept. 30, 2022.
(James Carbone)

The city of Huntington Beach’s complete settlement with the Pacific Airshow has been kept from the public for more than a year, but that could quickly change in the coming days.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Fish ruled in favor of Gina Clayton-Tarvin on Wednesday, writing that the city and City Atty. Michael Gates must release the full multimillion-dollar settlement with Pacific Airshow LLC.

Clayton-Tarvin, a Huntington Beach resident and longtime Ocean View School District Board of Trustees member, filed suit last June after her California Public Records Act request asking for the full settlement was not honored. Instead, Gates issued an executive summary of it, outlining its financial deals of the settlement with the air show operator, numbering up to about $7 million.


“This is really about public transparency and doing right by taxpayers,” Clayton-Tarvin said. “Frankly, the fact that Mr. Gates sequestered this information from the public for so long is truly unconstitutional. The California Constitution and the California Public Records Act make it very clear that the public interest is there when you’re talking about spending tax dollars. The information had to be released to me, there was no other decision.”

Gates had said that he wasn’t releasing the full settlement due to possible litigation by the city against the parties responsible for the oil spill. The pipeline began leaking on Oct. 1, 2021, ultimately leading to the cancellation of the final day of that year’s Pacific Airshow.

Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates, shown in 2022.
Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates, shown in 2022, said he will comply with Wednesday’s ruling unless the City Council votes to appeal it.
(File Photo)

A city-led lawsuit has not yet been filed, however, and Gates has said publicly he would release the full settlement if a judge ruled that he must do so.

Gates said in a statement Wednesday that he thought Fish’s direction and rationale were clear and that he planned to comply with the court’s order, barring any different direction given to him by the conservative majority City Council.

If the council votes to pursue an appeal of Fish’s decision, Clayton-Tarvin said she would take the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, if necessary.

“It was my decision alone, not City Council’s, to hold the release of the air show settlement agreement,” Gates said. “My decision was based on conversations with outside counsel representing the city’s pending oil spill lawsuit. The goal in holding the release was only to ensure that the city’s best position was not compromised by the release.”

Fish’s ruling noted the city did not have “pending litigation” at all, declining to adopt the city’s May 13 argument for a broader, Brown Act-based definition of the term.

“Having conducted an in-camera review of the settlement agreement, the court does not agree with the city’s contention that the scale ‘clearly tips in favor of non-disclosure,’” Fish wrote. “As stated by our high court: Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.”

Another aspect of the settlement is that the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee, on state Sen. Dave Min’s request, approved an audit of the settlement agreement with Pacific Airshow LLC via a bipartisan vote on May 14.

On Tuesday, Gates wrote a letter to California state auditor Grant Parks and Assemblyman Gregg Hart, the JLAC chair. He said the city remains in staunch opposition to the audit, which he said does not preempt Huntington Beach’s local authority as a charter city.

“The city will continue to object and will pursue any legal action necessary to protect the city’s rights and prevent the state’s interference into the city’s municipal affairs,” Gates wrote, adding that he believes the audit is improper and not consistent with state law.

State Sen. Dave Min, shown speaking at an event in 2023.
State Sen. Dave Min, shown speaking at an event in 2023, requested an audit of Huntington Beach’s settlement with Pacific Airshow LLC.
(File Photo)

Min (D-Irvine), who represents a portion of Huntington Beach in the 37th Senate District, responded in a statement. “What is Huntington Beach City Atty. Michael Gates trying to hide? His claim that the city of Huntington Beach is not subject to the state’s audit authority is ridiculous and baseless. But more importantly, why is he fighting so hard to try to hide the facts around the Pacific Airshow settlement that he apparently played a big part in negotiating? City Atty. Gates doth protest too much. The residents of Huntington Beach deserve transparency in their government, and they will get it.”

Clayton-Tarvin, represented by Gregory Pleasants along with Brett Murdock, said that upon receipt of the full air show settlement, she would release it to the state auditor and also make it available to any resident or taxpayer who wants to see it.

“[The ruling] is a win for the residents of Huntington Beach, and it’s a win for openness and transparency in government,” she said. “Our government should be honest with us. We shouldn’t be told to just sit down and shut up and take it. That’s not how it works in America. We have the right to know, and we will know.”