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Newport-Mesa Unified denies public records request

The Daily Pilot asks for e-mails between Supt. Hubbard and President Davenport. A media law attorney says the reasoning for the refusal is flawed.

February 08, 2011|By Joseph Serna, joseph.serna@latimes.com

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District has officially denied a Daily Pilot request to turn over e-mails between the school board president and its embattled superintendent.

Citing state public records law, the newspaper on Jan. 13 requested e-mails between Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard and school board President Walt Davenport. The request was officially declined Monday in a letter sent to the Pilot by Laura Boss, director of communications for the N-MUSD.

Boss wrote that the e-mails between Davenport and Hubbard fall under "deliberative process privilege," meaning they qualify for confidentiality protections, and disclosing them to the public would "interfere with the flow of information to government officials and intrude upon the deliberation process."

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A prominent media law attorney with a history of newspaper advocacy disagreed with that assertion.

"The deliberative process privilege is probably the single most abused so-called privilege in California," said Karl Olson, an expert public records attorney in San Francisco. "It's not an absolute privilege by any means. It's just a balancing test. They'd have to show the interest in withholding the documents clearly outweighs the interest of public disclosure."

Boss and the school district's attorney could not be reached for follow-up comments.

Davenport, however, said that he was told by the school district's counsel that the e-mails did not have to be released under the law.

"I don't really have much of an opinion on it," Davenport said. "It's with these kinds of requests that we usually turn to our attorney."

Daily Pilot Editor John Canalis said the public's right to review communications between public officials is well-established by the California Public Records Act.

"E-mails sent by public officials about government business and proceedings constitute public records," Canalis said. "Both parties in this matter are public officials — one elected, the other appointed by the school board — and it is our belief that the communications they sent in their official capacities belong to the taxpayers."

Canalis added that many e-mails written by Hubbard in relation to his pending criminal case have already been released to the Daily Pilot by the Beverly Hills and Newport-Mesa school districts. He sees no difference with the e-mails the district is now refusing to disclose.

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