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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Publisher’s Notebook

• Malibu Marionette Show? •

BY ANNE SOBLE

Public Records Act requests are a way to obtain access to information that government may want to keep from the public because it could cast an unflattering, or even illegal, light on policy formulation and implementation.
A number of requests have been filed recently related to roles played by the state Department of Parks and Recreation and other official entities, as well as non-governmental organizations with direct financial stakes in specific DPR projects, in the Malibu public policy arena.
Communications between key players in various State Parks projects in the community, some of which can involve government largess in the form of hefty grants and contracts, are being sought to determine whether the lines between public interest and special interest have become so blurred that special interests can reign unchecked.
The requesters are being vehemently blocked by DPR, which fosters even more concern on the citizens’ part that the agency does not want them to know who is communicating with whom and who is influencing whom.
With the potential to be more insidious is the supposition that residents are cultivated to serve as informal—and possibly compensated—spokespersons for these entities.
A dossier of emails and other communications is starting to accrue, and the DPR critics assert there appears to be recurrence of content format and language from State Parks personnel, quasi-public groups, NGO representatives and residents who parrot the doggerel. Some exchanges might even be construed as coaching the residents and providing what could be perceived as scripts.
Perhaps this is coincidence? But what if there is a concerted effort to manipulate possibly well-meaning citizens who are flattered by the public attention and access to agency brass? Questions continue to grow in number as more emails and other disclosures become available. Requesters are obtaining backup material from disparate sources to cross-reference with the DPR documentation.
State Parks officials have been repeatedly apprised of the PRA requests for the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project, and critics now contend that the agency is in violation of state law and litigation may be the next option.
The current lagoon project volleys are seen by some as a harbinger of tactics expected from State Parks during what is expected to be the next local public policy brouhaha—a proposed Rindge Dam removal project.
The Rindge Dam decision-making process is already under fire for blocking a public stakeholder from a recent Technical Advisory Committee meeting on the issue.
Preliminary review of some of the State Parks emails obtained by public records requests appear to reflect a DPR stance that only proponents of the agency’s projects are going to be welcome to attend these meetings.
While TAC meetings technically may not have to be open to the public at large, critics contend that attendees are being hand picked because they follow the party line.
Media that have the audacity to present all points of view also face the threat of a DPR firing line. The agency wants the press to be its personal propagandist. It wants journos to sing DPR’s praises, not quote its critics.
As the Public Records Act requests are complied with, answers to some very difficult questions may follow. One thing is certain. If there are any strings attached to local marionettes, they will be increasingly difficult to hide.

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