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Hearing Set in Corona E-Mail Case

A judge wants to determine whether two councilmen's personal messages influenced a city decision and thus should be made public.

June 09, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A Riverside County judge on Tuesday scheduled a July hearing to determine whether two Corona councilmen's personal e-mails about their defunct energy consulting firm prompted the city to drop its bid to take over Southern California Edison facilities. Community activists have urged the city to release the 338 e-mails, saying the messages will prove that Councilmen Darrell Talbert and Jeff Miller had a conflict of interest when they were pushing the city to take over Edison power lines and other facilities, an unsuccessful effort that cost the city $3 million.

In addition to scheduling the hearing for July 23, Superior Court Judge Sharon J. Waters issued a preliminary injunction to stop the city from releasing the e-mails. She said Miller and Talbert's attorneys have shown that the e-mails, written from personal e-mail addresses at home, are not public records. But they would become public if they caused the city to abandon its bid to take over Edison facilities, she said. At the hearing, Corona City Council members will testify about why they settled with Edison.

"What I am looking for is clarification if any of the e-mails read or considered by members of the City Council prompted ... settling" with Edison, she said.

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

In a declaration filed with the court, Councilman Jeff Bennett has said the e-mails were one of the factors that drove the council to settle. "The truth is going to come out," he said after the hearing.

Mark J. Austin, Miller and Talbert's attorney, said Bennett was not being truthful and was trying to shift attention from his financial woes. Bennett, a multimillionaire who created Nature's Recipe Pet Foods, filed for bankruptcy in November.

Austin said the coming hearing puts his clients in a "very difficult spot."

"This is giving the city the opportunity to create evidence where it doesn't exist," he said. "There's no way we can ever, with certainty, refute" what council members say they were thinking.

Peter Mort, an attorney for the city, said the public's right to know outweighs Talbert and Miller's privacy concerns.

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. This 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.

In December, community activists Jack Wyatt and Louise Mazochi filed requests under the California Public Records Act for documentation about city spending on the takeover bid. They have seen thousands of pages of legal bills and other documents that led them to the consulting firm and the e-mails. Wyatt and Mazochi say Miller and Talbert had a conflict of interest and personally benefited from money the city spent on its utility effort. They say the e-mails, which came into city hands during litigation with Edison, should prove it.

"This is the public's right to know," Wyatt said after the hearing. "The citizens and taxpayers and residents of Corona have paid for this. They have the right to know why decisions were made the way they were and whether their councilmen were in a conflict."

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