| SACRAMENTO – Meeting agendas and emails uncovered by a successful Public Records Act lawsuit demonstrate what skeptical members of the public have long suspected. The Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force pervasively and routinely met behind closed doors while directing the privately funded marine closure process.
“Public meetings of the BRTF have been an elaborately staged kabuki performance choreographed and rehearsed down to the last detail, even to the crafting of motions in scheduled private meetings held before the so-called public meetings of the BRTF. Clearly this has not been the ‘most open and transparent process ever’ as it has so often been described,” Partnership of Sustainable Oceans representative George Osborn testified during the February 2nd meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission.
Earlier that day, the commission was formally served with the PSO lawsuit seeking to invalidate MPAs approved for the South and North-Central Coast study regions. The new lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court alleges violations of the state Administrative Procedures Act and the California Environmental Quality Act among other violations of law.
The documents are the fruits of a successful Public Records Act lawsuit brought last year by United Anglers of Southern California and Robert C. Fletcher, former DFG Chief Deputy Director and past president of the Sportfishing Association of California. Sources say they represent only a tiny fraction of the materials ordered for release when the court determined the BRTF is a state agency, most of which have yet to be produced.
Spanning from April 2007 to November 2009, the documents demonstrate that the MLPA process was directed from high within the executive branch of state government. Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman is implicated in a briefing on managing the public process. The same emailed agenda dated April 7, 2007 advises BRTF members to “give your own notes verbally and throw them away after,” a secretive strategy for limiting “discoverable” material, denying the public a record of the BRTF’s closed-door actions.
BRTF “briefing meetings” were held on April 2007, November 3, 2008, December 10, 2008, February 25, 2009, and October 20, 21 and 22, 2009. The sessions preceded scheduled public meetings in places such as MLPAI executive director Ken Wiseman’s hotel parlor suite and the Santa Barbara home of then-BRTF chair Don Benninghoven. That meeting included a dinner with Chrisman and Fish and Game commissioner Richard Rogers, another frequent defender of the MLPA as a model public planning process.
As a member of a state commission, Rogers should have known the briefings were suspect. The state’s Bagley-Keene open meetings law clearly prohibits private meetings of a panel majority, even those limited to briefings. BRTF members and some commissioners such as Rogers regularly asserted the BRTF was not subject to Bagley-Keene, but claimed BRTF members voluntarily abided by it.
They did a miserable job. Emails authored by Meg Caldwell and Jane Pisano suggest the BRTF went far beyond briefings. They deliberated during their private sessions. In an email dated June 2, 2009, Pisano wrote “I feel strongly that we need to meet privately before the public meeting (either on the phone or in person).”
In late October 2009 as the South Coast process neared its end and the development of the BRTF’s own proposed set of Marine Protected Area closures known as the Integrated Preferred Alternative, MLPAI program manager Melissa Miller-Henson authored an email referencing a boardroom dinner “allowing the group to talk with Dr. Pisano about her perspective before she departs” a multi-day session early.
Similarly, in a request for more private time for BRTF members, Caldwell wrote “we can digest it in our own rooms, or conversation with one another, or in conversations with staff.”
At times, the emails delve deep into complex details. A February 2009 Caldwell email recommends bringing in an expert to consult on legal-jurisdictional issues between the state and the US Department of Defense over the question of MPAs at military use areas. “I’m free to talk by cell phone pretty much any time this weekend,” Caldwell added. Bagley-Keene expressly prohibits serial meetings such as these.
The public record also supports the notion that the BRTF deliberated behind closed doors. In an unguarded moment at the beginning of the November 10, 2009 BRTF meeting, then-chair Cathy Reheis-Boyd said “we’ve got task force members running on empty after three nights of about three hours sleep.” At that meeting, MPA plans developed by the three Regional Stakeholder Groups suddenly became Options A and B, literally overnight and without action in the public eye.
During a joint BRTF / Fish and Game Commission hearing on December 9, 2009, commissioner Dan Richards asked Wiseman if the BRTF held private meetings. Reheis-Boyd fielded the question, testifying on record that “[we] certainly do not make any decisions behind closed doors. It’s against our policy. We don’t do that, we don’t stand for that and we haven’t participated in that period.”
Reheis-Boyd acknowledged the group met for meals. “During that time if a member has a question they can ask a question of staff, certainly they can ask and have it answered so they could inform themselves. We do not deliberate and we do not make decisions at any of those meetings,” she added.
The documents prove otherwise, shining a revealing light into the secretive inner workings of the MLPAI, a process the PSO’s Fletcher characterized as the most corrupt and conflicted he’s encountered during decades of public service.
SD Freedivers is hosting the entire 25-page BRTF document / email packet at http://www.sandiegofreedivers.com/MLPABRTFofflinemeetingdocumentation.pdf.
Video of PSO representative Osborn’s commission testimony is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7_04BC1acA.
Video of Reheis-Boyd’s denial can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHxA14wBvDs.
MLPA SECRECY EXPOSED – Emails uncovered by the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans show the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force pervasively and routinely met behind closed doors. In this example, BRTF member Meg Caldwell demands a scheduled public meeting be delayed to allow more time to meet privately in the members’ own hotel rooms.