NEWPORT BEACH — Before one of them came toppling down and killed a motorist in September, the city's tree-trimming contractor knew that some eucalyptus trees on Irvine Avenue were infested by beetles and termites, public records released Monday show.
Still, West Coast Arborists determined that the fatal tree was safe to stand, according to the contractor's records.
However, it was unclear from the records if the fallen tree along the Newport Beach-Costa Mesa border was infested by the insects or just standing among other infected trees.
While the maintenance record covers the individual tree, its notes indicate that an inspector stood at the end of the block and made comments about the condition of all trees in that median. The file says, "continue annual and bi-annual pruning to mitigate hazards or potential failure."
That record was printed the day after the fatal tree collapsed, but it is unclear when the notes were written.
"Evidence of tortoise beetle, termites and decay on some specimens," the document says about trees in that stretch, "but none to justify immediate removal."
This revelation comes as officials withhold the official reports on the tree's collapse. Various news organizations — including the Daily Pilot, Orange County Register and Newport Beach Independent — have filed public records requests seeking the reports taken after the tree fell. City Attorney Aaron Harp has maintained that the records are protected by client-attorney privilege, among other reasons.
Responding to a request from an Independent reporter, Harp released a limited number of documents to the press Monday.
More documents could be forthcoming. One of the reporters working on the story has threatened to sue the city if it does not turn over documents, Harp said, so he plans to notify the City Council at its closed session Tuesday.
If the council members choose to address the potential litigation, they could recommend that Harp release the reports to avoid a lawsuit.
The Daily Pilot has not pursued or threatened legal action to gain access to the reports, but it has filed two requests under the California Public Records Act for various documents, and the newspaper's legal counsel has been in communication with the city attorney in hopes of getting the reports and other communications regarding the trees.
The Pilot's editor and its attorney have taken the position that they believe the documents are of the public record and subject to release.
After the 60-foot tree fell Sept. 15, Harp contracted a separate arborist, R. Dan Jensen & Associates of Huntington Beach, to determine what happened. Those reports remains sealed.
The West Coast Arborists inventory record released Monday shows that the Anaheim-based firm had last pruned the fatal tree April 21. Before that, it had pruned the tree in 2010, and four other times since 2000.
West Coast Arborists has been maintaining the city's trees since at least 1993.