Last week I found myself in receipt of a Public Records Act request filed by Shirley Fuller, assistant to Eureka kazillionaire Rob Arkley, and I was instantly gladdened. Though one has to feel sorry for public employees who have to comb through mounds of documents to find nuggets sought – especially considering that those employees are usually forced to work with antiquated and/or insane software – I confess that my own heart skips a beat anytime anyone files a PRA request in Humboldt County, for whatever purpose.
In the Fuller case, the aim seems to be twofold. In a general sense, it seeks to find out who in local government has been corresponding with Arkley’s enemies, and what they’re saying. The request requires all county workers, from supervisors to dogcatchers, to show any emails sent to or received from a long list of lefty individuals and nonprofit organizations, including Humboldt Baykeeper, the Northcoast Environmental Center, Democracy Unlimited, Healthy Humboldt and the Humboldt Herald blog. Especially in terms of Humboldt County’s ongoing general plan update, this is a fairly complete rundown of Arkley’s Axis of Evil. (Pssssst! You forgot about EPIC!)
More specifically, the Fuller request is aimed at uncovering who in county government did the dastardly deed of distributing a public document. On March 31, Sacramento lobbyist Kay Backer – the public face and possibly the sole surviving member of Humboldt Economic & Land Plan (HELP), a conservative “group” – wrote county supervisors and top staff with the au courant plea to slow down the general plan update process, which is over a decade old. (Ostensibly, the rationale for this is to allow for more citizen input; actually, it is to delay things until after the next election.) Backer’s letter, full of Tea Partyesque hyperbole and poor grammar, was gleefully published on the Humboldt Herald April 4.
How did the Herald acquire this letter? The request hopes to find out. In addition to the broad nine-month document dump outlined above, it seeks all county emails sent between April 1 and April 4 that contain the word “HELP” in the subject line, and all emails of any sort sent by Supervisor Mark Lovelace – evidently the prime suspect in this heinous crime – over the same period.
Is the intent of the request partisan in nature? Of course it is. Is there a certain amount of delicious irony to be derived from the fact that someone is using public records law to “expose” the distributor of a public record? Oh, for certain. Should we all brace ourselves for a colossal torrent of bullshit when the results are delivered, as the requesters transform each mundane digital utterance into proof of an elitist conspiracy against the people? Batten down the hatches.
Is the request itself therefore misbegotten, illegitimate, evil? Not in the slightest. It should be applauded.
Politics is a battlefield; government is its object. That’s our democracy, may the Goddess bless it. Last year Humboldt County conservatives insisted that the general plan update was taking too long. This year they’re insisting that it’s moving too quickly. So long as sufficient numbers can be convinced to sway with the message like so many stalks of wheat in an Iowa breeze, then all is fair. Apparently it’s not that difficult. This is America.
Though government is rightly controlled by whatever mob happens to be ascendant at present, the whole institution only works if the public’s business is conducted in public. Hucksters of all political persuasion may forever attempt to deceive the populace to gain power, but government must always provide them with the data and documentation on which to build their flimsy cases. Anyway, it’s always good to remind public servants who they work for, and there’s always a chance that something truly enlightening will come of it.
In that spirit, let me give Fuller a protip: You requested all of Supervisor Lovelace’s email correspondence over that four-day period, which is good, but why didn’t you specify that you mean “all correspondence dealing with matters of public interest, including any that came from or to any private email address Lovelace might possess”? This is still an unsettled matter of law, and it would be nice to close the loophole through which public officials can skirt disclosure simply by logging on to their Hotmail accounts. I hear you know someone with the resources to fight this matter.
It’s only too bad that we’ll never get this settled in time for the request that will deal with all of Arkley’s correspondence with local government concerning the general plan update, and that of his employees and allies. If by some miracle that request hasn’t been filed yet, it will be soon.