By Michael Raffety
As many of you know, the Mountain Democrat will be moving to new digs on Placerville Drive, possibly near the end of this year. Or maybe early next year.
In preparation for the move I’m slowly cleaning my desk. And there is nothing messier than an editor’s desk. Everybody likes to send me stuff to read, dump stuff on my desk. I’m full of bureaucratic newspaper administrative stuff that has accumulated over the years. Also I’ve got stacks of clippings that represent a kernel of an editorial idea or a factoid that might come in handy for a future editorial.
Naturally, the Internet saves me a certain amount of paperwork. Our Mac system allows me to store a lot of key documents on my computer desktop.
In the spirit of paring out old stuff I started going through my legal file. I began throwing old issues out so that it would be just a skinny file of matters not older than one year. But after throwing some out I wound up retrieving them from my recycling box. They were just too interesting.
After I finish this column I’ll throw them away.
In 1992 I met with the Placerville Union School District superintendent in an effort to tidy up the district board’s agenda. Prior to that the agendas always had an item called “Other items for discussion.”
After reviewing the Brown Act with the superintendent I followed up with a letter noting that the phrasing would be changed:
“1. Comments from the public that would be heard by the trustees but not discussed nor acted upon until placed on a future agenda.”
“2. Requests from the trustees for subjects to be placed on future agendas but neither discussed nor acted upon by the board until that time.”
The theory in the local government open meeting law is the public is entitled to advance notice about specific items of discussion. An agenda with “other items for discussion” is too broad and subject to abuse.
A good chunk of my legal file is devoted to the El Dorado Irrigation District. In the year 200 I wrote quite a few freedom of information requests — really California Public Record Act demands.
I wasn’t the only one seeking basic Public Records Act information. Former Director Ray Larsen was seeking much of the same information. He wanted to know how much was spent on studies and audits by the current board and he wanted to know how much personal expenses the directors had been reimbursed for.
In 2000 EID didn’t have an in-house counsel. It was served by a contract counsel, who threw out a lot of BS and avoided providing much information at all. For instance, in response to Larsen’s request the contract attorney provided Director Al Vargas’ cell phone expenses but blacked out the numbers he called. That was totally bogus. The attorney claimed “privacy and the legislative deliberative privilege.”
There is no such thing in local government.
In April of that year I requested copies of any correspondence “by U.S. Mail or by e-mail between Director Vargas and the California Sportfishing Protection and its attorney and associated law firm, whom I named. I also requested correspondence between board members and staff members and the Forest Service, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the state Department of Fish & Game, the State or Regional Water Quality Control Board and Congressman John Doolittle’s staff regarding roadwork in the vicinity of Alder Creek. I also asked for board member correspondence between local environmental groups and associated named individuals plus the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors.
What I got was a response for more detail without waiving the so-called “deliberative process privilege.”
So I provided more detail and the attorney cleverly labeled most “vague and ambiguous and is objected to on that and on deliberative privilege bases [sic].”
Some documents were produced and other “required more time to produce.”
But the real nadir came in October when our attorney had to write the EID board to release its financial and operational audit:
“My client, the Mountain Democrat, has asked me to contact you regarding the Financial and Operation Audit requested by your board which has been completed and received by EID several weeks ago. This document is a public record and should therefore be released to the public. Furthermore, the Mountain Democrat has serious concerns regarding statements made in the Sept. 19, 2000, meeting indicating the board has received the report and considered it in closed session. We find no support in the Brown Act for such closed session review and certainly the procedural requirements of the Brown Act were not met.”
Our attorney gave them five days to cough up the report or we would “institute legal proceedings.”
None of the people on that board in 2000 are currently on the board. The game playing over public records and secret meeting about what turned out to be a sham management audit was just the scum on the pond. The fight for survival underneath was the effort to kill Project 184, the main source of water for El Dorado County since 1867.
The board members then were Bill Bergmeister, Dirk Gillmeister, Richard Akin, Howard Kastan and Al Vargas. Bergmeister, Kastan and Vargas were trying to dump the project.
Arrayed against them were Citizens for Water, represented by the “Three Amigos” vs. the aforementioned “Troika” of Bergmeister, Kastan and Vargas. The Three Amigos were John Fraser, Doug Leisz and Joe Flynn. Fraser retired as general counsel of the Association of California Water Agencies. Leisz retired as chief associate forester in Washington, D.C. Flynn was doubly retired, first as Eldorado National Forest supervisor and then three terms as county supervisor.
Kastan wrote a column attacking the Democrat editorials and the Three Amigos as well as the recently fired EID general manager. That latter attack brought a libel suit from the ex-GM. The whole ball of rubber bands was in Kastan’s column, including the complaint that Director Akin was working to have Director Bergmeister recalled.
That 2000 board was chaotic. It had produced a complete turnover in staff, eliminating the key figures who had helped get Project 184 from PG&E. Kastan called them “so-called ‘elite’ staff members.”
The entire hydro department was eliminated. That probably helped more than anything lead to the success of the recall against Bergmeister. He was replaced by retired CDF area chief, George Osborne. Fraser won election to the Cameron Park area seat.
The current board has operated openly and professionally since the changes. Each year the general manager sends me a copy of the annual Comprehensive Financial Report. I just received the one for 2011. EID has gone through several managers. One helped upgrade the professionalization of the staff and district operations as well as make a huge improvement in relationships with state regulatory officials and agencies. It was an expensive endeavor that included getting a 50-year FERC license for Project 184, which supplies one-third of the district’s water via four alpine reservoirs and 22 miles of canal, plus a 21-megawatt powerhouse.
After that the district hired a retired water manager who came in and cut staff after getting a consulting study that pointed to overstaffing. He left after a year and now former PG&E district manager Jim Abercrombie is running the district. He cut staff even further and cut back on capital improvement projects as the economy tanked and hookup fees nearly disappeared.
But for me the key has been that the board, District Counsel Tom Cumpston, Abercrombie and all the staff have been open and informative. They haven’t done anything in closed session that wasn’t clearly attorney-client stuff about lawsuits or employee negotiations.
And I don’t have to act like I’m in a movie called “Dances With Attorneys.” Several times I have sent e-mails to Cumpston enquiring about the status of certain lawsuits and he sends me a detailed and informative answer.