For years, Costa Mesa city officials talked about improving the landscaping on both directions of a 2½-mile stretch of Newport Boulevard but were unable to get the grant funding.
But as Mayor Gary Monahan and other top city leaders were painting a picture of fiscal crisis last year, Costa Mesa spent thousands of dollars installing new vegetation for a roughly block-long section on just one side of the street — the section facing the mayor's restaurant, Skosh Monahan's Steakhouse & Irish Pub.
According to the city, the landsdcaping was done at Monahan's request.
While only this one section of the city-owned property was upgraded, city economic development director Peter Naghavi, who was public services director at the time, insists the mayor received no special treatment.
"We do this for many people as part of our job," said Naghavi.
He added that the mayor had been making requests for the upgrades for up to 1½ years before the work was done.
Beyond the questions of favoritism, however, Monahan's requests to Naghavi might have violated city law. A section of Costa Mesa's municipal code prohibits council members from dealing directly with the city staff other than the city manager. They may, however, contact staff to seek information.
In response to a public records request from Voice of OC for invoices documenting the cost of the improvements, the city falsely claimed that some of those records never existed.
But after Voice of OC explained details of the records' contents, which were obtained from a confidential source, city spokesman Bill Lobdell apologized for a "breakdown" in responding to the records request.
The landscape improvements took place in June on a section of Newport Boulevard in front of Monahan's restaurant and cost the city more than $6,400, invoices show.
The project involved removing oleander shrubs, installing 88 new orchids and repairing irrigation in the area, according to the invoices. The city says it does not have documentation of the number of staff hours spent on the project.
Claim Insolvency, Ask for Improvements
The improvements to the buffer area in front of Monahan's bar came just months after the city issued layoff notices to nearly half of its staff and announced plans to explore outsourcing numerous services. In his justification of the outsourcing plans, Monahan claimed that the city was on the verge of insolvency.
Last week Naghavi and Lobdell answered several questions about the project and the mayor's involvement, but on Feb. 17 Lobdell said that the city would not comment further. Monahan did not return phone or email messages seeking comment.
Naghavi said that he often grants landscaping requests by residents. The city "absolutely" did not provide a special favor to the mayor, he said "We treated him very much like any other resident of the city."
Lobdell added that the section in front of the mayor's restaurant was the only area of the boulevard with access to water that wasn't already landscaped. No projects were delayed as a result of the work, he said.
The work was approved by Naghavi at his discretion as a department director and not justified in any written documents, such as a budget or capital improvement plan.
Lobdell cited other examples of improvements done by the city in the last few years at the behest of residents and businesses that cost the same or more as the project in front of Monahan's bar.
He said "a wide strip of bushes and trees were removed" at Newport Boulevard and 17th Street after "a shopping center owner complained it was attracting homeless people."
But city law appears to prohibit the mayor and other City Council members from making project requests directly to any city employee other than the city manager. The only staff member that Monahan contacted about the project was Naghavi, according to Lobdell.
"The city council and its members shall deal with the administrative services of the city only through the city manager, except for the purpose of inquiry," the Costa Mesa Municipal Code states under a section titled "Interference by council in administrative affairs."
The city wouldn't say whether there are any exceptions that would allow the mayor to directly request to a department head that improvements be made to a public space in front of his property.
Open government expert Terry Francke explained that the severity of a violation — or whether one even occurred — "would depend on whether the mayor ordered anyone to do anything." Francke is general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware and Voice of OC's open government consultant.
"The Breakdown That Occurred …"
Francke said the law is clear when it comes to the city's responsibility for the records it failed to provide under the California Public Records Act. When asked late last week about the records, which were invoices from Santa Ana-based Ewing Irrigation, Lobdell responded in an email that the documents provided earlier in the week are "all the information the City has."
Lobdell went on to say that "irrigation repair in that area is normal maintenance performed as needed throughout the year, and the City did not track it nor did it track the purchases of irrigation repair parts (Ewing Irrigation) specifically for this work."
But the city does in fact have invoices showing those costs. Copies provided to Voice of OC by an anonymous source show a total of $937.84 in parts from Ewing Irrigation "for the project across from 2000 Newport Blvd.," the address of the mayor's bar.
Francke said that if an official lies in writing that a record doesn't exist, it could lead to criminal prosecution.
City leaders have said they want Costa Mesa to be a nationwide leader in openness, with CEO Tom Hatch going so far as to say that Costa Mesa would be the nation's most transparent government.
After the records' existence was pointed out, Lobdell later apologized on behalf of the city for "the breakdown that occurred in processing your public records request." He said Ewing does a large amount of business with the city and officials didn't expect that the purchases for last June's project would be marked as such.