Redondo Beach Mayor, Council angered by ‘vindictive’ records request
by David Mendez
Redondo Beach’s mayor and two council members took to social media this week to express their outrage toward a wide-ranging public records request by the backers of the dormant Redondo Beach Waterfront project. The voluminous request was described by Mayor Bill Brand and Council Members Todd Loewenstein and Nils Nehrenheim as “anti-democratic,” “malicious,” and “vindictive” for its scope.
“Look at the sheer volume of what they’re asking for. They’re asking for every communication possible, not including my wife and my mom,” Loewenstein said in an interview. “What purpose does that serve? It’s a fishing expedition — are they trying to find things that are controversial or embarrassing, or is this doing the city any good?”
The request was filed by the law offices of Shumener, Odson & Oh, LLP, on May 4 on behalf of Redondo Beach Waterfront, LLC. RBW LLC is a partnership between CenterCal Properties and Westport Capital Partners, and is the entity behind the Waterfront project. When the project was stalled, following the March 2017 election that swept those officials into office along with a rezoning measure designed to stymie the project, RBW LLC took legal action. The City and its erstwhile development partners have been locked in lawsuits since mid-2017.
RBW LLC was discovered as the backer of an election code lawsuit brought by residents against Brand, Nehrenheim and Rescue Our Waterfront President Wayne Craig. Brand, Nehrenheim and Craig won the lawsuit, while the RBW-backed residents were labeled “shills” by the judge.
The records request includes 32 items, many of which ask that Brand, Loewenstein and Nehrenheim submit all correspondence with, or documents pertaining to, dozens of keywords. (Councilmembers Christian Horvath, John Gran and Laura Emdee were not directly named as respondents, but will respond to items pertaining to them.) Those keywords include the names of known supporters of the officials; potential partners, such as developer Leo Pustilnikov; anti-Waterfront project organizations and their leaders, including ROW’s Craig; and fellow elected officials, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
It also asks the officials to disclose emails related to many of those topics from their personal email accounts. All of Redondo’s elected officials are recommended to do business through city-provided email accounts and/or devices, but some still discuss city business on private email accounts, such as those provided by Gmail.
“I don’t understand why I should be spending hundreds of hours going through emails and texts, looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s taking away from my ability to represent the city and my constituents,” Loewenstein said. “I understand the public’s right to transparency, but weaponizing the public records act, using it to humiliate people, is not what the justices had in mind.”
“This is not a vindictive request; that’s nonsense…we’re trying to get evidence. Until litigation is resolved, we can’t let our guard down,” said Betty Shumener. The information request, she said, was made because earlier attempts to gather evidence for RBW LLC’s lawsuit were stalled by City-driven motions to dismiss the suit. “It surprises me that they call this an attack; if they’ve got nothing to hide, they should not call this an attack,” Shumener said.
In a Facebook post, Brand cited Gregory Geiger, a principal with Westport Capital, as particularly responsible for the tactic, which he has done with increasing frequency in recent months. Brand also took care to mention that Geiger is a member of the Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Board of Directors. In the comments of that post, his supporters attempted to raise a campaign against Geiger’s position on the board. Brand responded by discouraging a boycott and praising the hospital.
“I love the transparency the California Public Records Act provides, and I support pursuing legal avenues to recoup what one thinks are rightfully due but being denied, but these anti-democratic monied elites are bastardizing and abusing our state laws to carry-out personal vendettas because their development project was shot down by the public,” Brand said in a Facebook post. “This is downright un-American and you should know about it.”
Geiger declined to comment on legal strategies, explaining that the lawsuit is only designed to recover costs.
“But I will say that the work I do for Torrance Memorial is done on a volunteer basis to serve the community,” Geiger said. “Personally, I’m appalled by tactics used by project opponents to defame an organization like Torrance Memorial, which is not involved in this legal dispute.”
By California statute, the City has 10 days to respond to a public records request, and is allowed to request a 14 day extension, and then issue a production date for the materials. However, according to City Clerk Eleanor Manzano, the responding documents will be reviewed by the City Attorney’s office to determine what is and is not privileged legal information and must be redacted.
Clarification: This article has been edited to reflect that Council members Horvath, Emdee and Gran must also produce responsive documents.