Huntington Beach Ordered to Release Airshow Settlement Details

Huntington Beach Ordered to Release Airshow Settlement Details
Mike Wiskus flies his Lucas Oil Pitts S-111B over the Huntington Beach Pier during the Pacific Airshow in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2021. (Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
Rudy Blalock

Nearly a year after Huntington Beach was sued by a resident for allegedly breaking California public record laws, the city has been ordered to release the full details of a $7 million settlement it withheld from the public.

The ruling, dished out by Orange County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Fish on May 22, requires the city to release the entire settlement agreement with operators of the Pacific Airshow, who sued the city when the final day of a three-day event it had staged was canceled because of the 2021 oil spill off Huntington Beach.

The operators sought compensation, and the city’s attorney, Michael Gates, announced a settlement had been reached in May 2023.

That’s when resident Gina Clayton-Tarvin—who is also vice president of the Ocean View School District and who had run for a seat on the council in 2022—filed a public records request but was denied and instead received a one-page summary. She then took the city to court, and with the judge’s order, will receive the full settlement agreement.

“Now we’re going to know exactly what’s in that settlement. ... Transparency and openness in government is required in California under our Constitution, and the California Public Records Act, and anyone who tries to say otherwise is corrupt,” Ms. Clayton-Tarvin told The Epoch Times in a recent interview.

She said as a school district official, where all public funds spent are openly available to residents, she believes the city may have been hiding something in their negotiations, such as additional funds allegedly paid to Air Show company Code Four’s CEO, Kevin Elliott.

According to the settlement, Code Four received $5 million from the city and could receive an additional $2 million after the city recovers its own damages from Amplify, the oil pipeline operator responsible for the oil spill.

“This was a giveaway of public funds to the Code Four operator Kevin Elliott. They didn’t even go to court. ... They literally just turned over, bellied up, and gave this guy $5 million of our money and into the future $2 million up for grabs,” Ms. Clayton-Tarvin said.

Under the ruling, the judge said attorney-client privilege, which the city claimed to withhold the settlement, did not apply in this case. The city also claimed pending litigation provided an additional exemption to the public records request, as the city is still in negotiations with Amplify. Judge Fish argued this would only apply if the settlement agreement was prepared for use in future litigation with Amplify, but it wasn’t.

“The City’s ‘future’ plans to sue third parties regarding the oil spill do not constitute ‘pending litigation,’ either,” the judge wrote.

But according to the city attorney, Mr. Gates, those who criticized the decision to withhold the settlement will not find any wrongdoing when the details are out.

“The decision [to withhold the settlement] was designed to really protect the city in the face of future pending litigation with oil spill defendants. ... It was not designed to hide anything or to keep anything secret. So [Ms. Clayton-Tarvin] is going to be sorely disappointed,” Mr. Gates told The Epoch Times.

Under the judge’s orders, Ms. Clayton-Tarvin and her attorneys who took up the case pro-bono have 10 days to propose a settlement, which the city has 10 days to respond to, before the documents are released. The settlement will include a request for attorney fees reimbursed, according to Ms. Clayton-Tarvin, who said she isn’t seeking any damages or other fees.

Earlier this month, the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee also approved a request by California Sen. Dave Min—who represents Huntington Beach in the 37th Senate District—for the state auditor to look into the multimillion-dollar Pacific Airshow settlement.

“Like hundreds of businesses along the Huntington Beach coastline, there is no doubt that the Pacific Airshow lost revenue during the beach closures that followed the 2021 oil spill. But it is unclear that they were owed any damages from the City for its decision, made in conjunction with the State and the County of Orange, to shut down its beach, and it is also unclear whether their lost revenues were anywhere close to the amount provided by the City’s settlement,” Mr. Min said in a May 14 press release announcing the audit.

In response, Mr. Gates sent a letter to the state auditor and said the city council doesn’t intend to cooperate and will sue if necessary.

The reason being, according to Mr. Gates, is as a charter city, Huntington Beach handles its own taxation and local spending under California law which is “beyond the purview of State control and inspection,” and an audit forced upon the city would be a constitutional violation.

He told The Epoch Times that the release of the settlement alone may not be enough to satisfy Mr. Min, but his audit request won’t come easy, as the city has no intention to comply.

“So if the state wants to take us to court and try their hand there to try to gain cooperation, they can certainly try that,” he said.

Responding to Mr. Gates letter to the state auditor, Mr. Min issued a May 21 press release asking what the city attorney was “trying to hide.”

“His claim that the City of Huntington Beach is not subject to the State’s audit authority is ridiculous and baseless. But more importantly, why is he fighting so hard to try to hide the facts around the Pacific Air Show settlement that he apparently played a big part in negotiating?” the state senator from Irvine said in a statement.

Once the settlement is released to Ms. Clayton-Tarvin, she intends to provide a copy to the state auditor for the review to begin, she told The Epoch Times.

Rudy Blalock is a Southern California-based daily news reporter for The Epoch Times. Originally from Michigan, he moved to California in 2017, and the sunshine and ocean have kept him here since. In his free time, he may be found underwater scuba diving, on top of a mountain hiking or snowboarding—or at home meditating, which helps fuel his active lifestyle.