Huntington Beach leaders have defended their decision not to release a copy of their $7 million settlement with operators of the annual Pacific Air Show, saying it was within their rights to not release it despite complaints from several public commenters.
Now, they could have to make that same argument in front of an Orange County Superior Court Judge.
Gina Clayton-Tarvin, a trustee of the Ocean View School District and former city council candidate, says the city illegally denied her request for a copy of the settlement under the California Public Records Act, the state’s chief law governing what records public institutions have to disclose.
“The Act and the California Constitution create a presumption of access to and disclosure of public records,” wrote Brett Murdock, Clayton-Tarvin’s lawyer, in the suit filed on June 7.
He continued, “Absent an adequately justified and narrowly tailored exemption, disclosure of public records is mandatory.”
To read a copy of Clayton-Tarvin’s complaint, click here.
At last week’s city council meeting, City Attorney Michael Gates criticized the council’s Democrat members who spoke to Voice of OC with concerns about the agreement, and said they never confronted him privately about any concerns.
“Any notion that somehow there are questions or concerns over ethics or transparency are completely without merit.” Gates said at the meeting. “There is no lawsuit on this and there’s no threat of any lawsuit.”
That changed the next day.
In her lawsuit, Clayton-Tarvin is asking for a judge to confirm the city violated the California Public Records Act and demand the immediate release of the settlement agreement.
“The City’s stated reasons for the denial are legally and factually insufficient,” Murdock wrote. “The Court should order (the city) to immediately disclose the Settlement Agreement.”
The settlement awarded as much as $7.4 million to Code Four, the company that manages the airshow, after they threatened to pull the show from Surf City due to it being partially canceled in 2021 because of an oil spill.
That spill shut down the second half of the airshow, and closed the county coastline for weeks as state and local officials worked to get the area cleaned up and save Surf City’s wetlands like Talbert Marsh.
At the city council’s meeting last Tuesday, Gates argued that the full settlement agreement is not required to be released and that the summary he provided to the public was adequate.
“The handling of this settlement occurred just like it does in every other case,” Gates said. “The government code does not expressly require the disclosure of the entire agreement.”
Leading up to last November’s election, Code Four was also paid to create campaign signs that were ultimately used by the council’s Republican majority, self-dubbed the “Fab 4,” and Gates at a “victory rally.”
Gates is Orange County’s only elected city attorney.
Councilmembers Dan Kalmick, Rhonda Bolton and Natalie Moser, the council’s Democrat minority, all raised issues with the settlement but declined to state specifics, saying it should be released publicly for everyone to review.
“It’s part of this pattern of irresponsible decision making,” Bolton said in an interview. “You’re going to see more of those, because that’s just how these guys roll.”
When Voice of OC asked for a copy of the agreement, city staff listed a series of reasons to not release the settlement, including that the agreement was an attorney-client work product.
The city’s statement also cited concerns that the settlement contained “architectural and office building plans,” and “pending litigation to which the public agency is party.”
Officials also say it’s not in the public’s interest to see the details on where $7.4 million is going.
“Records in which the public interest in maintaining confidentiality outweighs the public interest in disclosing.”
In a statement on Tuesday morning, Gates continued defending he city’s decision not to release the settlement agreement, and said the details they’d stated publicly on the settlement were all they were legally required to disclose.
“The City has not yet been served with the lawsuit so we cannot comment on the allegations or contentions,” Gates wrote. “However, we always follow the law.”
He added that Code Four has not yet dismissed the city from its lawsuit, despite the passage of the settlement agreement, and said the city’s plan to sue the operators of the oil rig that caused the oil spill could be disrupted if the settlement agreement was released.
At last week’s council meeting, Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark, a member of the Republican majority, blasted the Democrat minority for questioning the agreement, pointing specifically to a Voice of OC article where all three asked for the agreement to be released.
“We’re trying to develop a cohesive relationship, but these constant attacks do not help us and they do not help our city,” Van Der Mark said. “It’s pretty upsetting to pick up the paper and hear council members call us unethical and Ms. Bolton just says that’s how they roll.”
Huntington Beach city staff did not respond to a request for comment on Clayton-Tarvin’s lawsuit.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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