Newspaper Wars and a College Food Fight

Upstairs, Downstairs

Peter Lance, after being admonished last Tuesday by Judge Brian Hill for giving a thumbs-up to a witness, responds with a more dramatic gesture of approval (July 26, 2011).
Paul Wellman (file)

Viva la Fiasco: What’s supposed to be a sleepy town, especially in summer, has erupted into newspaper wars, college smackdowns, and a female cop put under a harsh spotlight.

Courts are seething with bitter disputes involving a Santa Barbara News-Press freelance writer accused of driving under the influence of alcohol; a judge who (wisely) backed down, then wised up; and The Independent’s editor-in-chief and its publisher suing one another over ownership. Instead of just printing the news, the two papers are making it.

Barney Brantingham

In an upstairs-downstairs drama at the Santa Barbara Courthouse on Monday, News-Press freelancer and DUI defendant Peter Lance and City Council candidate Cruzito Cruz were being kicked out of Judge Brian Hill’s second-floor courtroom for uncourtly behavior, while downstairs Independent editor Marianne Partridge was accusing publisher and majority owner Randy Campbell of reneging on his alleged offer to sell her his 51 percent ownership.

Campbell denies reneging. He had planned, however, to sell his shares to the owner of a Ventura County printer who runs several weeklies generally considered second- or third-rate. What the prize-winning Indy would have turned into is anyone’s guess. The intramural case before Superior Court Judge Denise de Bellefeuille is being carried on in an atmosphere of serene decorum, but dirty linen is being hung out.

Meanwhile: Over at City College, the question going into last week’s trustees meeting wasn’t whether college president Andreea Serban was going to get the ax, but how they could keep her from suing. (They found a way.) And whether she was going to be able to talk the Board of Trustees into removing a reportedly highly critical evaluation they’d put in her file. (She did.)

Result: The embattled Serban gets a roughly half-million-dollar golden handshake, paying off the rest of her contract through 2014, plus severance. She’s agreed in writing not to sue and will be allowed to keep the title of “president” until next June, even if she never sets foot on campus. (All the better for her job-hunting.)

It didn’t help Serban’s case that she became a finalist for the top job earlier this year at Mt. San Antonio College without bothering to tell the board that she wanted to get the hell out of Dodge and they might have to find a replacement, quick. She had one foot out the campus door, but didn’t get the job.

Serban’s got a doctorate, but she didn’t take People Skills 101.

With her departure, a recall move by Serban’s backers, targeting three trustees, is now expected to fizzle. It’s almost easier to get Congress to raise the national debt limit than it would be to get enough signatures (around 11,000 per trustee) to get this on the ballot. It’s also expected that the highly dubious Brown Act violation accusation against trustees by Serbanites will disappear. But bitterness against the newly elected trustees who bounced Serban remains.

As political prankster Dick Tuck wisecracked in a 1966 concession speech, after losing a California State Senate election, “The people have spoken, the bastards.”

Back at the Ranch: Lance is being allowed by News-Press owner Wendy McCaw to write his own DUI defense in a novel-length, innuendo-laden series of nine (and counting) page-oners attacking arresting officer Kasi Beutel, including her personal life. Yellow journalism to many, intriguing exposé to others.

Last week, Judge Hill endured Lance’s outré court behavior, “cheerleading,” as Hill put it, and theatrics, and let him and the News-Press off the hook for disobeying his gag order not to publish details of an in-chambers discussion. No harm, no foul, Hill decided. In some courts around the land, it might have spelled not only a contempt- of-court citation but possibly a jail cell.

The proper legal response would have been for Lance to appeal. Normally, what’s known as prior restraint, preventing a newspaper from exercising its free-press rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, is a legal no-no. Judge Hill feels that he would have prevailed. Others disagree.

On Monday, Hill warned that “what happened last time we were in court is not going to happen again, under any circumstances.”

So, after Lance accused Judge Hill of “muzzling” witnesses, he’d heard enough and ordered him out. Cruzito, also accused of DUI, was bounced for applauding at one point. The issue of the day was whether blood-alcohol-test waivers for Lance and others were forged. That will be taken up again Friday, August 5.

Whether a circus atmosphere will prevail when Lance’s actual trial is held remains to be seen, but fortunately the old Courthouse walls are strong and (relatively) soundproof.


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