Newport-Mesa Unified denies public records request

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District has officially denied a Daily Pilot request to turn over e-mails between the school board president and its embattled superintendent.

Citing state public records law, the newspaper on Jan. 13 requested e-mails between Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard and school board President Walt Davenport. The request was officially declined Monday in a letter sent to the Pilot by Laura Boss, director of communications for the N-MUSD.

Boss wrote that the e-mails between Davenport and Hubbard fall under "deliberative process privilege," meaning they qualify for confidentiality protections, and disclosing them to the public would "interfere with the flow of information to government officials and intrude upon the deliberation process."

A prominent media law attorney with a history of newspaper advocacy disagreed with that assertion.

"The deliberative process privilege is probably the single most abused so-called privilege in California," said Karl Olson, an expert public records attorney in San Francisco. "It's not an absolute privilege by any means. It's just a balancing test. They'd have to show the interest in withholding the documents clearly outweighs the interest of public disclosure."

Boss and the school district's attorney could not be reached for follow-up comments.

Davenport, however, said that he was told by the school district's counsel that the e-mails did not have to be released under the law.

"I don't really have much of an opinion on it," Davenport said. "It's with these kinds of requests that we usually turn to our attorney."

Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis said the public's right to review communications between public officials is well-established by the California Public Records Act.

"E-mails sent by public officials about government business and proceedings constitute public records," Canalis said. "Both parties in this matter are public officials — one elected, the other appointed by the school board — and it is our belief that the communications they sent in their official capacities belong to the taxpayers."

Canalis added that many e-mails written by Hubbard in relation to his pending criminal case have already been released to the Daily Pilot by the Beverly Hills and Newport-Mesa school districts. He sees no difference with the e-mails the district is now refusing to disclose.

Other e-mails by Hubbard sent from Newport-Mesa to a former subordinate in his previous job as the Beverly Hills schools chief are part of the evidence introduced in his criminal case in Los Angeles.

Hubbard on Monday pleaded not guilty to two felonies in Los Angeles County; he is on paid leave from the district.

E-mails submitted in his criminal case reveal that while working in Beverly Hills, Hubbard exchanged flirtatious e-mails with his subordinate, Karen Ann Christiansen. He's accused of illegally giving her $20,000 in stipends and improperly increasing her monthly car allowance.

The dialogue between Christiansen and Hubbard continued after he joined Newport-Mesa in 2006. Records show he used his district e-mail address to continue the playful banter with Christiansen.

Though he faced criminal charges, Hubbard continued working in Newport-Mesa until late last month.

In a letter dated Jan. 23 to Davenport, Hubbard requested paid administrative leave, saying his case had become a distraction for the district. He was put on leave at the following school board meeting.

The letter is the only exchange between Davenport and Hubbard that the district has disclosed.

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