City Pays $202K in Attorney Fees in Public Records Lawsuit

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In the latest movement in a years-long public records act lawsuit, Newport Beach has paid $202,129.52 toward a Corona del Mar man’s attorney fees and costs, according to city documents.

The two checks were both dated Feb. 6 and both made out to Melinda Luthin, the lawyer for resident Kent Moore.  

It all stemmed after concerns were raised in 2010 about Newport Beach Sister City Association regarding the authenticity of receipts, and the adult supervision and behavior around kids and alleged alcohol use during a trip to Antibes, France, earlier that year.

Moore is the former vice president of the association, a nonprofit group that supports a student exchange program in several cities around the globe.

He took issue with the “lack of oversight” and inadequate vetting of the adults supervising the kids.

In February 2015, he filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against the city requesting they release any related documents regarding the investigation into the trip in question as well as taxpayer-funded grants to the organization.

About one year later, in January 2016, a judge ruled that city officials should have provided Moore with all the documents responsive to a public records request.

He feels it was too tough of a process to get the records. The city “hung me up for years,” Moore said.

“My purpose here is to educate the public,” he said. “This type of thing shouldn’t occur. This shouldn’t happen to a private citizen just asking for documents.”

It’s been a long, hard fight, but he’d do it all over again if he had to, Moore said.

Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said the city takes all public records requests seriously and tries to respond to them in a timely matter. Although sometimes, like in this case, the requests involve numerous documents dated several years back and/or a number of former employees.

“It can be quite difficult to locate all those records,” Harp said.

Generally, lawsuits related to the public records act stem from the government body taking an exemption to providing the records, meaning they have the records but don’t produce them when asked, Harp explained.

“That’s not what happened here,” Harp said.

It was about making sure they produced all of the records, he said.

“We worked with him to always produce the documents we had,” Harp said. “The question was if we had located all the documents (requested), which took a fair amount of time.”

City officials wanted to make sure they thoroughly searched all the documents and found all of them, he said. Because of this, and the sheer number of documents and former employees involved over the years, it may have taken longer than usual, Harp noted.

There have been some changes implemented since then, Harp said. Over the past few years, the city has spent a lot of time and effort to catalog and organize documents so that they are more easily accessible internally and to the public, which puts the city in a better position to respond to public records requests when they get them.

Although the changes were not a direct result of Moore’s case, Harp said, it had been recognized that it needed to be done.

“We want to be a city that is open and transparent,” Harp said.

The city gets a lot of public record act requests in and Harp feels they typically do a good job of handling them.

“It’s unfortunate for everybody involved that we had to go through litigation because [it] wasn’t necessary… I think we could have been able to work through the issue without the lawsuit, “ Harp noted, “but ultimately that’s not what happened.”

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