Everything seems topsy turvy. I find myself cheering Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace and siding with the government over a public records act battle. I haven't felt this trippy since string theorist Brian Greene convinced me that existence is filled with infinite universes. Lovelace was the one supervisor who held out against a settlement between the county and the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights that would pay local attorney Allison Jackson $100,000 in fees. As I am married to an attorney, who like Jackson is a former deputy district attorney, I could appreciate how nice a sum that is in Humboldt County for legal fees.
To understand how bizarre all this sounds to me, first you have to understand that I have tried hard to disagree with Lovelace ever since we fought over a table at the Arcata Theatre Lounge. (It was my table!)
Next you have to understand the facts of the California Public Records Act (CPRA) request that HumCPR made in 2011. It had asked the county to disclose all the money it spent to prosecute or defend itself against lawsuits, some of which HumCPR had filed.
Lovelace told the Journal through email that he believed the county had complied in good faith to the public records request. According to the NCJ's April 22 blog, Jackson at one point told the court that the county had provided insufficient records even though she hadn't yet looked at the records. She wanted a breakdown of legal costs so detailed it would show attorney time sheets and where lawyers had gone for lunch. Jackson's hourly cost breakdown should be interesting. As taxpayers will pick up the tab, it should be part of the public record.
This story makes me uncomfortable in multiple ways. First, Supervisor Estelle Fennell voted for the settlement even though she spent three years on the payroll of HumCPR and recently appointed its executive director to the county Planning Commission. In this paper, Ryan Burns tied Supervisors Ryan Sundberg, Virginia Bass and Rex Bohn to HumCPR as well, through orchestrated campaign donations.
Meanwhile, the idea of suing a government entity and then complaining about how much taxpayer money is being spent on the lawsuits is sort of a weird take on SLAPP suits. SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation." They are generally slander or libel suits filed by corporations against people or organizations to stifle negative publicity campaigns on, say, unsafe products. Companies use them to frighten people and silence them. It's a bully tactic.
HumCPR seems to be doing strategic legal campaigns — using the California Public Records Act and then the suing over public records issues —to make it more and more difficult for the county to go after people like Bob McKee and the other owners of Tooby Ranch property for improper land development. That's what this whole thing is really about. There are a bunch of landowners who want to be able to do whatever they want to do with their land, regardless of how it affects the rest of the people in the county. As a property owner, I see where they are coming from. But I don't want the neighbors on either side of me to necessarily be able to do anything they want with their land. And I really don't want them bullying the Arcata City Council so that my elected councilmembers are too afraid to take action needed for the benefit of the city at large.
Then there's Jackson's legal tab. At $300 an hour, that would come to 333 hours. Granted, Jackson filed the lawsuit more than a year ago. But it's a lawsuit over the California Public Records Act. It isn't a murder trial. How much work could it entail? The law is pretty clear. You just have to document to a judge that the county didn't make public what it should have made public. How many billable hours does that take?
Here is what makes me feel even more uncomfortable. This is a really small community. Most people in government and the organizations that work with government know each other. Our kids play soccer together; our spouses know each other. Here you have a settlement agreement that involves a $100,000 payment to a local lawyer that was worked out by a bunch of people all tied to each other in numerous ways.
I would feel much more comfortable if a judge had made that determination in a court of law.
That's what Lovelace said.
I could see people looking at this and saying: "What if we file a lawsuit that causes a small government agency such a headache they really want to settle. But before that happens we find a way to spend an enormous amount of time doing legal research on it? Then with the settlement will come a nice bill for services. Score!"
Meanwhile, the whole suit was about transparency and yet the organization which filed it is a secretive organization. The thing I hate most in this world is a hypocrite.
And that's what bothers me most of all about this whole thing. I am all about transparency in government and full disclosure. So I should have been cheering on HumCPR's fight all along the way. But I wasn't. And that kind of makes me a hypocrite. So here is how crazy this whole thing is. At the end of it, I'm loving Mark Lovelace and disliking myself.
Damn you HumCPR.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She plans to sue herself for libel for calling herself a hypocrite.