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What's Not To Know 

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Drew Hyland

Local governments should do everything on Facebook. Maybe then we would find out what goes on. Things keep happening in Humboldt behind closed doors. I'm the type of person who only wants inside when someone shuts me out.

For instance, I was all set to ignore a new multi-agency committee, the Association of Humboldt Harbor Agencies, but local resident Larry Henderson had to tell me in a recent Times-Standard My Word that in its first meeting, the AHHA(!) decided it wasn't subject to the California Ralph M. Brown Open Meetings Act. Henderson is a member of a citizen's group called the Humbolt Bay Harbor Working Group, which wants to bring maritime business back to our humble port. That's another group I have made a point of ignoring until it started some Brown Act hanky panky.

The Brown Act prohibits legislative agencies and their advisory committees from acting in secret. Henderson said members of AHHA decided that open meetings or public participation would cut into the time they needed for deliberation and discussion.

Understandable since the members have a one-year time frame in which to work. They are supposed to come up with a grand vision for the port and a 12-year plan for doing it. I got that from the minutes, taken down by Henderson, of the committee's first meeting Jan. 29.

This is a curious committee. I'm glad they pulled me in by trying to shut me out. The members come two each from four agencies which share jurisdiction over Humboldt Bay: the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, the city of Eureka, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District and the Wiyot Tribal Council. The meeting was led, though, by Susanna Munzell, a member of Henderson's group. And a third member of the group, Karen Brooks, kept track of "talking points" on an easel.

According to the minutes, the new committee informed the members of the working group that they could no longer participate in the meetings, since the meetings would not be open to the public. However, the committee agreed to send the working group copies of all "business materials and correspondence" and further invited it to continue to act as community liaison to inform the public as to projects recommended ..."

If this were Facebook, AHHA just accepted Henderson's working group as a special friend and degraded the public (me) to acquaintaince. They get the news feed items. I don't.

The working group brought this new multi-agency committee into being by drafting a resolution to the effect that the agencies would try to create jobs by supporting and promoting maritime commerce, including such things as cruise ships and bulk shipping. It then convinced each of the four agencies to adopt the resolution wholesale. It passed the Board of Supervisors last year, but then-Second District Supervisor Clif Clenenden and Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace voted against it.

By the way, under AHHA's adopted rules, it could take action as long as it has attendance by three of the agencies. Note to Wiyot Tribal Council: Make sure they have your correct contact info so they can let you know when the meetings are scheduled. I'm just saying.

Meanwhile, one of the first decisions the new committee made was to toss out its stated purpose. According to the minutes:

"The common goal is to create jobs and sustainable economic growth through Humboldt Bay's Harbor. Comments were made to clarify that this common goal is that of the governing body of the individual agencies; and should not be deemed to be the committee's purpose yet to be defined by the committee."

I so want to ignore this committee, which with a one-year timeline to create a grand vision and a 12-year action plan, couldn't figure out its main purpose by the end of its first meeting. It did agree that the working group would prepare agendas, minutes and "other documents as needed." Munzell "explained that the working group's motive is to minimize spending public money on the committee and its business, and to maximize transparency of the committee's work."

Thanks! How did you know that I would rather watch TV than read publicly available agendas and minutes and attend boring meetings! Now that the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group offered to do it for me, I can go back to watching The Voice. But your offer to keep all those documents at your place makes me want to read them.

This new AHHA so skirts the Brown Act. Under the Open Meetings Act, no majority of members of any agency could meet to discuss agency matters without proper notice to the public. And it doesn't apply to just decision-making boards but advisory groups as well. But it doesn't necessarily apply to multi-agency advisory groups. It does apply to committees created by resolution by a local government body. But this was one weirdly written resolution. It sort of created the committee.

This is just one of a handful of cases in Humboldt County of public agencies I now have to watch because they seem to be shutting me out. There's the new committee the Eureka City Council created in closed session that would interview city manager candidates. The council initially refused to disclose the names of the people on it. Here was a great case of my not caring, except that THEN I SIMPLY HAD TO KNOW who was on that committee.

Then there is the oh-so-secret process taking place at Humboldt State University for the selection of our next president. In classic HSU fashion, the selection committee held a big all-campus meeting to find out what the campus thought would be important in a candidate. The audience consensus was for more transparency — better communication with students, staff and faculty. Then we found out that the identities of the candidates would be kept secret and the selection process would not include candidate visits to the campus.

Meanwhile, the Northern Humboldt Unified School District, which was caught last summer in violation of the Brown Act, subjected itself to a Brown Act training session. They learned the hard way that if you are trying to tamp down a scandal (last June, board member Dan Johnson gave a speech on behalf of the board at Arcata High School's graduation that he found off the Internet, and then refused to apologize for his act of plagiarism) members can't go emailing each other to get around public disclosure. Johnson missed the training session.

Maybe he was too busy interviewing for the job as HSU president. I wouldn't know.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She is usually the last to know.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at [email protected].

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