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AMBROSIA SARABIA with edits, theLog.com, June 10, 2010

In May 2010, a reporter that was attempting to videotape proceedings was forcibly removed from a Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group work session. MLPA staff then reversed their ban on videotaping and audio recording at future sessions. However, the move has not eased tensions between those tied to the planning process for new Marine Protected Areas off the California coast (where fishing will be off limits) and sport anglers who advocate retaining open fishing areas.

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.

Transparent Process?

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 organization 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.

For more information on MLPAs, visit dfg.ca.gov.

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