OPEN GOVERNMENT --  Last month, after public
reaction to a video journalist's ouster from a work session of the Marine Life
Protection Act (MLPA) North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group, MLPA staff decided to drop its no-taping policy. But that move has not eased tensions
between those tied to the planning process for areas off the California coast where fishing will be banned and
sport anglers who advocate retaining open fishing areas, reports Ambrosia Sarabia in The Log, a boating and fishing newspaper.  The result is a public records lawsuit.

On
May 28, United Anglers of Southern California (UASC) and the
Partnership for Sustainable Oceans, who have opposed the direction
MLPA’s appointed Blue Ribbon Task Force appears to be heading, filed a
suit against the task force and the MLPA Science Advisory Team, claiming
they have violated the California Records Act.
“It has become more and more evident that the MLPA process is
being steered off course by special interests — and political
motivations — with dangerous potential for restricting many popular
areas enjoyed by fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts,” said UASC
president Steven Fukuto, in a prepared statement.

The law firm of Allen, Matkins, Leck, Gamble, Mallory &
Natis LLP, acting on behalf of the UASC and petitioner Robert Fletcher,
filed suit at the Sacramento County Courthouse as the first step of a
multistage litigation process, according to Fukuto. The filing is the
first step in what he expects to be an ongoing, thorough examination of
the “flawed process.

“Our legal team has identified several potential causes for
action, and we will aggressively pursue any and all legal avenues to
protect recreational access for fishermen, and all Californians,” Fukuto
added.

According to the UASC, the suit is tied to the Blue Ribbon
Task Force’s and Science Advisory Team’s failure to respond to requests
made by Fletcher for documents and records relevant to the MLPA
implementation process. The verified petition for writ of mandate and
complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

Under the California Public Records Act, the public has the
right of access to information that is in the possession of state and
local agencies. By law, public records are open to inspection at all
times during office hours of state or local agencies, except for those
that are exempt from disclosure by express provisions of the law.


Issues of transparency have remained an area of contention
for anglers.

California’s Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act of 1967 requires
that “meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and
agencies shall be open to public scrutiny” and requires open meetings
for all California state agencies, boards and commissions. Its purpose
is to mandate accountability and transparency of government activities
and to protect the rights of citizens to participate in state
government.

However, MLPA’s staff has long stated that its work sessions
do not qualify as “public meetings,” as the MLPA initiative process is
privately funded through a unique public-private partnership.

When a Fort Bragg journalist was forcibly removed from a
North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group work session after refusing to
stop videotaping, claiming California’s open meetings laws gave him the
right to cover the event, there was public uproar — and a protest from
United Anglers of Southern California.

According to MLPA staff, members of the media and the public
were permitted to attend work sessions but were not permitted to make
comments, take photos or make recordings of any kind. The rule was put
into place to create a “safe space” for individuals to speak openly and
toss out ideas, according to staff.

In May, the rule was revisited and redefined to allow
videotaping and audio recording by the public and members of the media,
after MLPA staff members determine that the ban “was not reflective of
the process.”

“We always err on the side of being open and transparent,”
said Ken Wiseman, executive director of the MLPA Initiative. He said the
sessions do not fall under Bagley-Keene, since there is not a quorum.
“It is important that people not be given this idea that we are somehow
restricting access, or that it is not open and transparent.”

The change in policy has not changed UASC’s mind about the
openness of the process. The organi-zation has cited various instances
where decisions were made during Science Advisory Team meetings.

One occurred in 2009 when “persistent kelp” was mentioned — a
subject that UASC said no one but perhaps team members understood. The
classification of “persistent kelp” reduced the amount of kelp used in
scientific guidelines that the Science Advisory Team uses to evaluate
habitat replication. At the time, stakeholder groups were not provided
enough time to fully understand what it meant or how it applied,
according to UASC.

“The Blue Ribbon Task Force said they would operate the
process in the spirit of Bagley-Keene, and we feel they have not lived
up to that spirit,” Fukuto said. “We feel that decisions have been made
in private.”

Others argue that the process is anything but open. Months of
planning and revising Option 2, an alternative for the South Coast
Region that would implement the fewest fishing closures, were wasted,
many participants in the process said, when the Blue Ribbon Task Force
threw out the options recommended by stakeholders and instead developed
its own preferred plan — the IPA. If approved, the plan will close
approximately 400 square miles of ocean off the Southern California
coast to fishing.

However, Wiseman argues that anglers’ time was not wasted and
their input was not thrown out. The resulting plan created by the Blue
Ribbon Task Force was a blend of all three stakeholder proposals,
Wiseman said.

“For sportfishing associations to say their ideas were
ignored is ludicrous,” he said. “Their ideas are incorporated into the
preferred alternative that is in front of the commission.”

He added, “They did not get everything they wanted, but
nobody did.”

Greg Schem, who served as a member of the South Coast Region
Blue Ribbon Task Force and currently sits on the Blue Ribbon Task Force
for the North Coast Region, said the process invites everyone to the
table. Every proposal made by varied interested groups, information
provided by the Science Advisory Team and the Blue Ribbon Task Force is
open to public comment.

Schem said he is an angler who joined the process two years
ago, so he understands where other anglers are coming from — but he said
he also understands that fishing closures are necessary as marine
resources continue to degrade.

“I don’t like closures either, but I recognize this is a
necessity,” said Schem, president and chief executive officer of Harbor
Real Estate Group, a firm specializing in marina and waterfront real
estate investments — including a marina, fuel dock and boat- yard in
Marina del Rey.

“It is not a question of how do we not close anything, but a
question of how do we close areas while still preserving adequate areas
for consumptive users, and provide protected areas that will allow this
network of MLPAs to operate as scientists anticipated,” Schem said.

Closing specific fishing areas was especially difficult since
everyone has a favorite spot, Schem said. These emotional ties made it
difficult for many to compromise on closures, he added.

“Not everybody is going to be happy,” Schem said. “Everybody
is going to give a little bit, and that’s how you come up with a
compromise.”

The Fish and Game Commission will vote on the plan for
Southern California’s MLPA closure areas this summer and plans to
finalize and implement new Marine Protected Areas by the end of the
year. The study region includes the area extending from Point Conception
to the California/Mexico border.

The North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group is in the early
stages of drafting alternatives for establishing Marine Protected Areas
in Northern California. The group will work with the Blue Ribbon Task
Force, the Science Advisory Team and staff to evaluate existing Marine
Protected Areas within the North Coast study region. The study region
extends from the California/Oregon border to Alder Creek in Mendocino
County.

The planning process is expected to be completed in December
2010.