I Hope I’m Wrong – A Look Into the Woolsey Fire Review Process Ordered By the City of Malibu

By Paul Taublieb


I was interviewed today by a rather lovely, former city manager of Pasadena, Cynthia J. Kurtz, who is a part time “Special Advisor” conducting interviews on behalf Management Partners as part of their efforts.  An earnest, sincere, well-meaning person –  expressed the goal and agenda of her company’s efforts, which in some ways encapsulated all my concerns expressed below.  “We are not doing an investigation.”  Well, I said, I thought that was what your company is doing?  “No, she replied, we are doing a report and analysis not of individuals or to assign responsibility for what was done wrong, rather, how the city and its systems and protocols worked as part of a complex system.  It is not our intention to call out individuals by name.”  But isn’t the implementation of these systems the work of individuals, I asked?  “We do not approach our work that way.   It’s about the city’s response, not an individual, and we are more focused on what needs to be done to improve for the future rather than assign responsibility for whatever might have not been done incorrectly in the past. We are not interested in any particular individuals.  If you wanted an investigation the city should have hired investigators.  We are not investigators.”

I hope I am wrong.

I do believe that the two council members who took on the task to hire a firm to do a post-fire analysis, Mikke Pierson and Karen Farrer, acted with integrity and the best intentions when they secured the services of a firm named Management Partners to do an analysis of the city’s performance during, and after the fire, for a fee of $50,000 of our taxpayer dollars.

Whether this is an “investigation” or an “examination” is an area of some vagueness and linquistic gymnastics, though Mikke did say to me “Let’s be honest, looking at how Reva handled this is why we’re doing with this report,” adding, “I promise, Karen and I did our best to find the right firm for the assignment the City Council gave us.”   Though Karen later added, “It’s not what a lot of people would call an investigation, and that’s not what the council asked us to do.  if you want an investigation, you should go hire someone on your own and go do it. It’s not what we were asked to do.”  I opined I thought it awas, but she said to check the record, which is what I did and where my concerns began.

However, whatever you call it, there were a series of warning flags that gave me pause as I began to look into the firm doing whatever you call it, Management Partners. I was hoping in a phone call they would address these concerns, and alleviate them, and allow their report to be delivered without a cloud, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  What seemed a simple request, is a bridge too far, it appears.  I can be a cynical, suspicious person, though short of conspiratorial, but experience has shown me that the process is to question hard first, then seek out clarifying answers.  I am easily dissuaded from my initial instincts with simple communication as if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years as an award-winning investigative journalist and two-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker: there are two sides to every story.   But in order to balance the concerns that research revealed with an explanation or justification, the other side – Management Partners – would need to communicate.

But the simple request for an interview led to things actually getting worse, which I’ll get to, but these most recent developments in my efforts to have the issues addressed have actually raised even greater concerns about Management Partners.

So wherein lies the rubs that led to the original red flags?

It starts with the very nature of their business.  On one hand, as Mikke and Karen have explained, they sought and felt they secured a professional firm with experience in understanding the unique challenges that a city government faces when faced with a crisis like we experienced. That is logical, but when I looked at MP’s website, it becomes immediately apparent that the core of their business is consulting, employment and working closely with cities. In other words, having a positive relationship with cities and people working for, and wanting to work with, cities would seem intrinsically important – so the question becomes, do they have the stomach, and track record to prove it, that they will make the harsh, difficult calls to call out a possible performance shortcoming that could significantly a person’s career if the findings called for it?  Was that even their intention or part of their charter?

Something I wanted to ask, and also see some examples of this kind of post-crisis, personnel-analysis, consulting work.  This would require them talking to me and providing backup, which requires communication.

Next, in their proposal to the city which got them the contract:

    a. In the four bullet points where they state what would be the crux of the work they will do, there was one that said: “What went well and why,” but nada, not a peep, about  “what went wrong and why”.  I am going out on a limb here, I do not believe what went “right” is the source of concern for people who lost their house or sat in traffic for five hours or breathed ash for days fighting fire or were stopped for almost two weeks from returning to their homes from an inexplicable, draconian-enforced blockade.  And again, this appears to speak to the “inside the club” mentality that concerned me from the outset in looking at their business model.
    1. b. Their report also states that “(a)s part of its review of the performance of the City Manager, we will report to the Council in executive session, as appropriate”. In other words, delivered

in private 

    to the city council only.   This also raises red flags.  Now, perhaps the answer is this is potentially a personnel matter with legal implications and the results need to be private by either statute or courtesy, but the idea of the performance of the single most important person being examined being delivered in private seems counter to the idea that both Mikke and Karen espoused about this being “open and transparent.”  (I will leave it to others to draw whatever parallels to any other report which might have been in the news lately about selective release of information, or a report with redactions and no accompanying underlying documentation.)

Again, both topics, which perhaps could be easily addressed and concerns assuaged in relatively straightforward fashion, but this would require communicating.

Now, both Mikke and Karen have gone to great lengths to assure me that along with expertise, the key criteria in hiring MP was they stated in no uncertain terms that no one at MP had any personal contact or relationship with anyone at Malibu city, and in particular no relationship or previous contact with our city manager.  Besides stating it verball to Mikke at least, the company principal expressed this, with this convoluted sentence in their letter, which I found to be at best confusing, at worst debunking the hands-off/don’t Reva claim, “We know we were notselected to assist you with this work because we know Reva.”  (Does that mean they don’t know her, or they do – and my reading anyway, is the later, that they do.)

Nevertheless, they had told Mikke and Karen they were an Ohio-based company that had no connection to anyone at our city, including Reva.  But I wanted to ask MP about the City Manager’s Conference, held in February 2019 at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Diego.  You see, MP is a “gold level” sponsor of this event (e.g. They write a check to the organization to have their name splashed about to potential users of their services) and, well, it turns out that a) Reva Feldman is “president elect” of this organization, b) was moderator on a panel about crisis management and c) on no less than three other panels featured staff members from MP headlining on panels.    Add in meals and mixers, and it strains credulity that there is no relationship whatsoever between MP and our city manager.  Again, I could well be wrong, conventions are crowded chaotic places.  Certainly, easy to clear up. By talking to me.

On top of that, add, while MP may have looked appealingly remote to Mikke and Karen because their corporate headquarters are in Ohio, but they have branch offices in Fresno and Costa Mesa, and two of their investigators are former city managers, including one from nearby Ojai, further straining the idea this is a true, hands-off relationship, and to Mikke this was actually a selling point given the expertise a city manager would have into the challenges.

So could be they are honest players and there is no relationship. I don’t disagree no matter how the circumstantial facts appear.  But exactly the kind of thing I wanted to discuss with them in an interview to clarify, or perhaps entirely disabuse me of my notions.

Actually, my process in trying to earnestly communicate with MP – hear both sides of the story — as a member of the local media began with a phone call.  An esteemed fellow journalist, Sam Hall Kaplan, had told me he had attempted the same with a couple of emails but had not heard back. So I picked up the phone to talk to Andy Belknap, the assigned point person for MP on this effort, working out of their Fresno office.

The young man who answered explained he was not at all surprised Sam and had not heard back, nor should I.  Andy, he explained, was very busy, often on planes and traveling, and as a rule simply didn’t have time to return calls or emails.   Now, of very important note, I was very clear that the purpose of my call was as a representative of the local media looking for some questions to be answered.

I think leaving a message that I doubted Andy’s life was significantly busier than mine, got an email response from Andy to both myself and Sam, and he said he would be reaching out to schedule a time to talk to each of us, and he even mentioned he was a fan of my documentary work. Now, to give him the initial benefit of the doubt, he now claims, through the company president and CEO, Jerry Newfarmer, this was a misunderstanding, that Andy thought Sam and I – both professionals at telling other people’s stories – sought out being interviewed byhim as part of their research process, not doing our jobs as journalists and interview him.  I even forwarded Andy the article I had written about the fire for The Local (“What Happened and What Didn’t”), so it was quite clear I was a journalist covering this beat.

This is absurd, of course, to not see Sam and I as journalists.  But even granting there may have been some initial confusion, what followed from me were a series of emails pointedly explaining I that — as a journalist — wanted to ask questions.  I wanted to give MP the chance to clarify and address my concerns.

Things like, were interviews with personnel like Reva being recorded and would we see full transcripts, why did the interview with Reva take place before community members had shared their stories (learned today, btw, that a) they were not recorded, and b) are confidential and will not be shared, so there will be no record of what anyone said), what outside entities (Fire? Police? Pepperdine?) were they going to talk to, and also address the possible inherent conflict of interest, illuminated by their stating the priority was to find out what went “right,” and an explanation of how it was possible, that despite them funding a convention with Reva, and people from their company speaking on panels at the same convention, that no one in their organization knew her?  Who was responsible for not having planned for the evacuation in a fire-prone city?  Why so long to repopulate?  Why no relief mission to the people behind the barricades, and who made this call? Why was CERTs not properly prepared and deployed?  Why were doctors forbidden to come and provide aid?  Why were restaurateurs told not to open and feed people, as some had volunteered to do so, but were shut down, and by whom?  Was it appropriate that one city councilman to come and go and actually tried to stop the sea relief mission, and another espoused the virtues of evacuation yet had a family stay and protect his home. And so on.  What exactly were they covering, I wanted to know?

Andy finally laid down a gauntlet. He would talk to me if a city council member authorized him to do so. Mikke did that, in writing.  Then my entreaties to set up a time when unanswered. He laid down the same gauntlet a second time as if we hadn’t already done it, and in clear and precise and unambiguous terms, Mikke was kind enough to put it in writing a secondtime that Andy was authorized to talk to me as a journalist.

Radio silence.  So out of my frustration with their reticence to connect, Mikke was kind enough to send a mutual introduction to myself and Jerry Newfarmer, the company President and CEO, encouraging us to communicate directly between ourselves.  The bottom line, according to Jerry:

a. It had all been a misunderstanding. Andy never intended to be interviewed by me, he meant to interview me.   When I emailed Jerry with email evidence of the opposite, including Andy’s request for permission from Mikke, and twice, Mikke giving me that permission, there was no response.  Then he accused me of mispresenting myself, which I find very, very disconcerting, and a false accusation that speaks to the old trick of accusing the accuser, a breach of both civility and ethics.

b. But no matter, by policy, regardless of what the actual representative (Mikke) of the client (Malibu) wrote or wanted, he simply wouldn’t allow himself or anyone on his staff talk to the press. It’s just their policy.  I explained that’s not a law, it would behoove them to address the questions I had for their sake and to underscore the integrity of the report.   I asked why hide if you have nothing to hidein an email, and I left a number of messages for him to call me back.  But more just plain, cold silence.

The bottom line is MP simply wants to release the report without any scrutiny of their methods or process or answer any questions whatsoever.   And apparently it’s a report, not an investigation.

They even went so far as to deny they ever said they would talk to me with permission, which they got, and then reneged.  So the writers of the history of the Malibu fire were already rewriters of history.

So at this point we shall see.  I do not know if the analysis of the city manager’s performance will be buried with the city council. Nor do we know if the many other questions will be addressed.

Mikke concludes, “”I hope all your suspicions are wrong and that their report achieves the goals we asked them to look into as a city”.

I hope so, too.  We shall see.

But why look at this now? Well, there’s also time.  Time, if necessary, to make a change and engage a real, non-partisan, non-city-industry-related true, hard-core, truly independent investigator who doesn’t mind talking about what they’re doing, what they’re learning and how they’re doing it, and naming names of who did great, and who did not.






Cece Woods

The Current Report Editor in Chief Cece Woods started The Local Malibu, an activism based platform in 2014. The publication was instrumental in the success of pro-preservation ballot measures and seating five top vote-getters in the Malibu City Council elections.

During the summer of 2018, Woods exposed the two-year law enforcement cover-up in the Malibu Creek State Park Shootings, and a few short months later provided the most comprehensive local news coverage during the Woolsey Fire attracting over one million hits across her social media platforms.

Since 2020, Woods was the only journalist reporting on the on-going public corruption involving former L.A. Metro CEO Phil Washington. Woods worked with Political Corruption expert Adam Loew, DC Watchdog organizations and leaders in the Capitol exposing Washington which ultimately led to the withdrawal of his nomination to head the FAA.

Woods also founded Malibu based 90265 Magazine and Cali Mag devoted to the authentic southern California lifestyle.

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