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2 Corona Councilmen's E-Mails Must Be Released

A judge's ruling regards conflict-of-interest allegations about the officials' consultancy.

August 12, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A Riverside County judge ruled Wednesday that roughly 185 personal e-mails written by two Corona councilmen containing information about a defunct energy consulting firm they formed must be released to the public.

The decision was a victory for community activists who believe the communications will reveal whether Councilmen Darrell Talbert and Jeff Miller or other city employees had a conflict of interest when the city tried to take over Southern California Edison power lines and other facilities to add to its existing utility. It was an unsuccessful effort that cost the city $3 million.

The councilmen deny any wrongdoing, and it will be weeks before the public will see the contents of the e-mails.

Activists Jack Wyatt and Louise Mazochi had been seeking the release of nearly 400 e-mails but said they were pleased by the judge's ruling.

"It appears we're going to get a good number of e-mails, and I think that they're going to be able to substantiate many of the suspicions we have about the behavior of these two city councilmen," Wyatt said after the hearing. "It's appropriate for the public to know what was going on. The e-mails will help provide information that the public should have."

Talbert and Miller said they were happy with the decision because the judge ruled that some personal e-mails would not be released. They said they still needed to consult with their attorneys, but both men said an appeal was unlikely.

"I'm thrilled," said Miller, who is up for reelection in November. "The city wanted to release all of the e-mails, and the judge agreed with us that they were not all public records.... The e-mails will show what the FBI, district attorney and the Police Department have concluded: that we have done nothing wrong. I couldn't be happier."

The hearing regarding which e-mails will be released and what will be redacted was closed to the public. Earlier in the day, Superior Court Judge Sharon J. Waters had indicated that she was amenable to releasing e-mails that had been exhibits attached to depositions taken during the Edison takeover bid, as well as e-mails read by or read to other council members, and e-mails written from city computers or using city e-mail addresses.

The documents will not be released until Waters signs an order to do so. The order is being drafted by attorneys for the councilmen, the city, Wyatt and Mazochi, and will be submitted by Aug. 20.

The situation has its roots in the energy crisis of 2001, when Edison customers saw their bills skyrocket. Cities such as Riverside and Anaheim, which had their own municipal utilities, were able to keep rates lower than those that relied on Edison. That prompted some cities to start their own utilities. But Corona went further, trying to seize Edison's power lines, substations and other infrastructure.

Miller and Talbert were advocates of the takeover plan, which was approved by the council in late 2002. Edison fought the plan, and the city dropped its bid in May 2003 after spending more than $3 million on the effort.

Some said the two councilmen had a conflict because they had formed a consulting firm to help other cities create their own municipal utilities. That firm never did business with Corona but tried, and failed, to do work for other cities in the region.

The e-mails discuss the firm, Municipal Energy Solutions, which Talbert and Miller formed in June 2002 with Glenn Prentice and George Hanson, who were then top administrators of the city's utility, and David Huard, a lawyer with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who represented Corona on energy issues.

In December, Wyatt and Mazochi used the state Public Records Act to request documentation about city spending on the takeover bid. That enabled them to see thousands of pages of legal bills and other documents, which led them to the consulting firm and the e-mails. They filed another Public Records Act request in March seeking the e-mails, and the City Council voted to release them. Talbert and Miller won a preliminary injunction to prevent that.

In the hearing, Mark Austin, the councilmen's attorney, said political foes wanted to use "zingers," "locker-room talk" and "sound bites" from the e-mails.

The councilmen have been arguing that disclosing the e-mails would be an invasion of privacy, and an attempt by a foe on the council, Jeffrey Bennett, to shift attention away from his bankruptcy case.

Bennett, who has advocated releasing the e-mails, defended his stance, noting that he didn't take any of the actions that triggered the judge's decision.

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