Taxpayers are the real losers in this case


Did the city of Newport Beach violate the California Public Records Act?

A court determined Jan. 20 that it wasn’t, but didn’t totally let it off the hook.

Last September, I wrote about the lawsuit Kent Moore filed against the city of Newport Beach in which Moore’s attorney, Melinda Luthin, claimed city officials either ignored or stonewalled Moore’s document requests, allegedly violating the records act.

The city claimed it responded to the requests, but admitted some records were not produced because they had been either lost or misplaced during the move from the old City Hall to the new Civic Center.

The reason Moore and Luthin were requesting documents in the first place stemmed from Moore’s concern over reports about the Newport Sister City Assn.’s 2010 trip to Antibes, France. Included in those concerns were alleged acts of incompetent chaperon oversight, an incident of underage drinking and trip expenses Moore felt weren’t verified by receipts or other documentation.


Since the Sister City Assn. receives grant money from the city, Moore called for an investigation and requested copies of grant documents and correspondence among city officials regarding the matter. He also asked the Sister City group for documents.

Moore formerly sat on the Sister City Assn. board and was not on the Antibes trip.

The city’s investigation into Moore’s claims no wrongdoing.

But Luthin sued the city over Moore’s document requests, which she said the city didn’t produce.

Then things got nasty.

Luthin alleged that when process servers tried to serve subpoenas to Newport City Manager Dave Kiff, Councilmen Keith Curry and Ed Selich they “ran like cockroaches.”

Kiff disputed those claims, telling me none of them tried to evade service.

Selich called Luthin “delusional,” and Curry said the evasion accusation was “simply a lie,” adding that Luthin was using the lawsuit “to shake down the taxpayers for personal financial gain.”

Luthin had been the original attorney of record in the Friends of the Fire Rings lawsuit, but isn’t any longer, according to City Atty. Aaron Harp.

So, on Sept. 28, all parties in this document lawsuit appeared in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.

At the time the judge continued the case, urging the city to produce whatever documents Luthin says she didn’t receive.

Fast forward to Jan 29. All parties were back in front of Presiding Judge Linda S. Marks.

Luthin argued that some of the records the city couldn’t produce were produced by the association, inferring the city had nefarious reasons for not producing the records.

The court didn’t agree with that reasoning, but did feel there “were holes or gaps in missing documents, and the city should go back and take a look at what it has in its possession,” according to court transcripts.

Harp said the city did this and Luthin should have whatever additional documents they could find.

The court admonished the city for not producing all the records in a timely fashion, which would’ve avoided the litigation.

The judge believed the city’s claim that some documents were lost or destroyed in the City Hall move, so the court didn’t find a violation of the Public Records Act.

“It does not appear that the city needs to justify withholding records if they claim no records exist,” the judge said, also suggesting Newport needs to create a more-user friendly website so users can more easily find public documents.

“I don’t believe that a member of the public should have to click after click after click to ascertain information on the website,” she said.

Luthin said none of the subpoenaed witnesses or defendants appeared to testify in court.

“Perhaps because they did not want to have to invoke their Fifth Amendment right [against self-incrimination], and decided that a sanction or citation for contempt would be better than taking the stand,” she wrote in an email.

Court documents show the judge ruled witnesses could be on call and didn’t need to be in court.

Reading all 35 pages of the Jan. 29 court transcript, there are no real winners here except Luthin. She’ll see a pay day for her services. The judge told the city to come to agreement on her fees.

The city was indeed sloppy with its record keeping. It needs to comply with record requests, even when someone is unpleasant.

The court even said, the attorney’s demands of the city “appears to border on harassment.”

And I’m still questioning why Moore even went through all of this angst over this Antibes trip.

One thing I do know is taxpayers will pick up the tab, and they’re the biggest losers here.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at Listen to her weekly radio segment on “Sunday Brunch with Tom and Lynn” from 11 a.m. to noon on KOCI/101.5 FM.