By Daniel Langhorne | NB Indy
An Orange County Superior Court judge admonished the city of Newport Beach for driving a whistleblower to sue for the release of documents regarding taxpayer-funded grants to the Newport Beach Sister City Association.
Judge Linda Marks ruled last week that city officials should have provided Corona del Mar resident Kent Moore with all the documents responsive to a public records request, which would have averted more than a year of litigation and about $400,000 in attorney fees to be paid by the city.
“[I]’m just troubled about how this has all proceeded and the amount of money that has been expended,” Judge Marks said.
Moore is a former vice president of the Newport Beach Sister City Association, a nonprofit group that supports a student exchange program with Okazaki, Japan; Antibes, France; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and Ensenada, Mexico.
Moore left the organization after allegedly airing concerns about the authenticity of receipts, missing funds, and alcohol use during a 2010 trip to Antibes.
“The newest members of the Council promised a new era of transparency and fiscal accountability in the city,” Moore said in a statement. “Instead, stonewalling and smoke and mirrors have occurred, putting doubts in the minds of an electorate which was fed up with business as usual.”
The public records lawsuit resolved on Jan. 29 turns on Moore’s campaign to get the city to release reports about its investigation of whether taxpayers’ funds were spent on uses outside the scope of its grant agreement with the Sister City Association.
Moore challenged a September 2014 letter from City Manager Dave Kiff claiming he “didn’t find any reports that were generated based on the allegations related to this trip to Antibes.”
During this litigation, Moore’s attorney Melinda Luthin obtained a copy of an email chain between Kiff and Association President Liddy Paulsen via a subpoena sent to the association. The emails included a chart of the allegations, the association’s responses and “follow-up needed.”
Judge Marks ultimately ordered the city to release these emails to Moore.
Luthin said this lawsuit shows that the city’s refusal to produce these emails and other documents in this case demonstrates a systematic failure to follow the California Public Records Act.
“If they are mismanaging this, what else are they mismanaging?” she said.
City Attorney Aaron Harp defended the city’s response to Moore’s records request.
“The city was asked for a plethora of records and city staff did the best they could to locate the requested records; however, given turnover in staff, the relocation of City Hall, and the age of the records (a lot of the records were over 5 years old), initially, the city failed to locate all responsive documents,” Harp said.
He added that although this was unfortunate, the city didn’t deny the request or claim exemptions and continued to look for and produce the records sought by Moore.
Mayor Diane Dixon declined to specifically comment on the lawsuit’s outcome but continues to stand by the organization.
“I am a strong supporter of the Sister Cities program, which is privately funded by voluntary contributions,” she said. “I was proud to represent Newport Beach in events last year in our sister city Antibes, France, at my own expense. I look forward to continued enriching exchanges through this valuable program.”