David Gurney, Free Speech Hero

by Letters to the Editor, January 27, 2011

A journalist forcibly arrested for recording and speaking at a public meeting is suing the privately funded MLPAI, and state agencies.

On April 20, 2010 David Gurney went to a Marine Life Protection Act Initiative meeting in Fort Bragg, California, to record the “public/private” agency that was closing off large areas of state waters to fishermen and seaweed gatherers. Soon after the meeting began, it was announced that the public would not be allowed to record or speak at the meeting.

“I was surprised,” Gurney says, “The managers had decided to split up the thirty-four local stakeholders into separate sub-groups, against their will. They apparently didn't want it on tape.”

But he had been working on a documentary of the MLPAI process for the past nine months, and the camera was rolling.

Executive Director Ken Wiseman immediately stopped the meeting.

“He and professional facilitator Eric Poncelet came up to me with an armed fish and game warden, and ordered me to quit filming,” Gurney says. “I was threatened with ejection and arrest if I didn't.”

He complied, but three other times during the two-day meetings, he continued to record. “I wanted to get some quick B-roll footage, to show how the stakeholders had been split up against their own vote,” he says. Each time seen, he was ordered to stop.

Gurney also spoke up at the beginning of the proceedings when it was announced there would be no opportunity for public comment. “I knew that was also a violation of the law, to hold a public meeting and not allow any comment,” he says. “I simply told the MLPAI that I had not given up my rights by attending their meeting.”

Finally, near the end of the second day, Gurney asked a question that the staff did not want to hear.

“During the question and answer period, I asked whether the MLPAI would make any provisions to protect the ocean from other activities besides fishing. Things like oil drilling, wind and wave energy development, fish farms, etc. As the facilitator was telling me that no questions would be taken from the public, someone sent a Fish and Game Warden over to arrest me,” Gurney says.

He was quickly escorted out of the meeting hall, hand-cuffed, and taken away in a Fish and Game pick-up truck.

In 2004, the MLPA “Initiative” resurrected a ten-year old law with undisclosed private funding, to create its own, nebulous state-like agency. Director Wiseman at first said that California laws, including the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, did not apply because the process was “advisory” to state government. And yet the state supplied scientists, advisors and armed Fish and Game Wardens to act as security guards for public MLPAI meetings. Many feel that the blurring of lines between private and public interests opened the floodgates for corruption, and that illegal private influence of the democratic process runs rampant in the MLPAI.

California's open meeting laws guarantee that citizens and members of the press have a right to keep track of what goes on in a public process, and assures they will not be harassed at public meetings. Yet the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, funded by the secretive Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, often had secret, unrecorded meetings, changed the rules of their process at whim, and abided only by the laws of their own choosing.

Mr. Gurney had earlier volunteered to serve on his community's citizen watch-dog committee to keep an eye on the “Initiative.” Many in his town felt that the privately funded commission had repeatedly crossed the line of illegality. In addition to violating state open meeting laws, a 72-foot blue whale had been killed off Fort Bragg by an unlicensed mapping vessel, contracted by the MLPAI. Native American interests were negligently ignored. Shady stipends, favors and promises were handed out from the unregulated contributions of the Resources Legacy Foundation. Secret, unrecorded meetings continued to be held. Local folks complained loudly of ineptitude, conflict of interest and corruption.

“I just wanted to get what I could on tape, for the historical record,” he said.

He is seeking a permanent injunction that will prevent further violations of Bagley-Keene, Constitutional and other laws by the MLPAI, as well as damages suffered in the arrest.

Interestingly, the California Attorney General's Office has illegally declined routine service of papers in the complaint, forcing attorneys to initiate default proceedings against the state.

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