Odds are Newport Beach activist Mike Glenn's slander/libel small-claims suit against Newport Beach Councilwoman Diane Dixon won't go in Glenn's favor because she's protected by legislative privilege that essentially gives her the right to say what she wants to as an elected official in a public meeting.
At least that's the opinion of Costa Mesa Councilman John Stephens, an attorney who practices business litigation.
"Under California Civil Code Section 47 (a) and (b), [Councilwoman] Dixon's statements would be considered privileged, even if she made them with malice," he says. "Bottom line: She can't be sued."
Stephens said Glenn's case "lacks merit," as the "policy behind the absolute privilege is to allow those participating in the legislative meeting to feel free to express themselves without the fear of civil liability."
Though Dixon calling Glenn out publicly from the dais about the alleged $600 he owes the city for his public record requests — which he supposedly never picked up — might be in poor taste, under California law her questionable behavior isn't legally actionable, Stephens said. (Glenn denies he owes the city $600.)
"The consequence of an errant or impertinent statement during a meeting is risk to the speaker's reputation in the community and, potentially, political backlash, but not civil liability," Stephens explained. "The privilege has the potential to shield some malicious statements, but the Legislature has made a policy decision to accept that risk."
Glenn's lawsuit also warrants conversation about the records request process in our cities.
How do you balance the public's right to know, yet dissuade abusers of a system who frivolously rack up costs and staff time?
One possibility I see is in investing in technology to enable citizens to easily search a municipality's databases, either via on-site terminals or online. It could greatly widen the scope of what's currently available to them, like adding a council's correspondence, voicemails, etc.
Simply analyzing the city's webpage of record requests history would give a direction to start.
Glenn's lawsuit isn't the only controversial news in Newport. Councilman Scott Peotter recently put out another email blast to supporters looking for donations to fight the recall effort against him.
In it, he claims the recall will cost $500,000, calling this a "bunny tax."
We know Peotter is no fan of the city's bunny sculptures at the Civic Center, or their cost. But in his campaign against them, he greatly underestimated residents' fondness for them, so why he'd use this analogy here is beyond me. Furthermore, Newport's city clerk has told me a recall effort vote of this kind would cost an estimated $300,000.
Peotter's blast asks those who signed the recall petition to "take it back," download a "bunny tax petition" and mail it in.
In a rambling email, he calls out who he deems "people behind the recall": former council members Keith Curry, Rush Hill, Tony Petros, Mike Henn and former council candidates "Mulligan" Mike Toerge, Fred Ameri and Toerge supporters Paul Blank, Sharon Wohl and Hugh Logan. Peotter's email also notes that he defeated Toerge in 2014 and that Blank criticized his support of "traditional marriage."
He also calls out "big government activists" Nancy Skinner and her "radical daughter" Susan Skinner.
Supporting Peotter's efforts, and sounding a little less crazy, was a mailer from his Team Newport compatriots: Mayor Kevin Muldoon and Mayor Pro Tem Marshall "Duffy" Duffield. It urges those who have signed the recall petition to rescind their signatures.
Team Newport's flier claims the recall will cost $502,400. I'm not sure how their math works. I couldn't figure it out and tried several ways to reach their figure. They cite a cost of $3.40 to verify each signature, 11,000 needed signatures and $80,000 for the "extensive city staff time" to sort it all out.
Speaking of Peotter, in another recent email blast — titled "Say No to Free Money" — he touts the council protest vote not to accept state revenue from the new gas tax and vehicle registration hike.
I'm not for the gas tax, but why not protest by supporting San Diego tax reformer Carl DeMaio's statewide effort to reverse the gas tax by gathering signatures to bring the gas tax to a referendum vote of the people in 2018?
Craziness aside, what could this tax revenue mean to a city, as money generated at the gas pump is earmarked for road improvements in that city?
Costa Mesa City Manager Tom Hatch estimates $2.5 million annually in his city alone.
Now this revenue can only be used to enhance existing road and street projects. The city can't cut its current budget efforts regarding road improvements; this extra money is meant to go above and beyond their efforts.
Newport's refusal of money here is misguided and will have no impact on Sacramento policymaking. It only shows how shortsighted leaders here are.