Uproar over Trinidad Councilman’s Blog

From 1.20.09 issue

By Elaine Weinreb
Press Staff Writer

A Trinidad City Councilman’s personal blog has aroused a furor of controversy, leading to accusations by other councilmembers of an invasion of their privacy and a violation of trust.
Councilmembers Kathy Bhardwaj and Julie Fulkerson said they were disturbed to find their private correspondence about city issues posted on Councilman Mike Morgan’s personal blog.
Morgan was careful to say that he was not accusing anybody of violating the Brown Act, but maintains that the councilmembers’ e-mail conversation was “a precarious step in the wrong direction,” and should never have happened in the first place.
Last November, Bhardwaj observed a gravel pad that had been constructed on Trinidad resident Glenn Saunders’ private property. She wondered if he had a construction permit, and emailed other councilmembers, asking for their advice. Saunders had previously donated several acres to the city for a park and museum.
The email conversation soon included Councilmembers Julie Fulkerson and Stan Binnie, as well as former Mayor Chi-Wei Lin.
It touched on political controversies within the city, Saunders’ health problems and procedural issues.
Soon City Attorney Paul Hagen and City Manager Steve Albright had joined in the exchange as well.
Bhardwaj, Fulkerson and others also exchanged emails about the problem of illicit marijuana grow houses in Trinidad.
Mike Morgan had been elected to the council a few weeks earlier, but had not yet been sworn in. Binnie thought that Morgan should be included in the discussion, and on Nov. 26, emailed Morgan copies of the correspondence.
At that time, Morgan did not yet have a blog.
On Dec. 24, Morgan posted all the emails on his personal blog, along with his own comments, stating in the blog that he wanted to keep all his dealings with other councilmembers public.
The issue exploded at the Jan. 14 meeting of the Trinidad City Council.
Bhardwaj said she was appalled to find that a rough draft of a letter she was thinking about writing had been published over her signature.
“Aside from being a total violation of privacy, in no way could my rough draft of a letter be considered an action item for the council. I was even more horrified to find out that citizens’ private business had been posted there,” she said.
Bhardwaj said that she would eschew email from now on, and go back to using the phone.
Morgan replied that Bhardwaj should regret that she wrote the emails, but should not regret that they had been publicized. `The email communications, he said, were questionable, suspicious, did not build trust in the community, and he wanted no part of that sort of communication.
“A way to avoid this whole mess,” Morgan said, “would be to just say ‘I think I see a code violation. I’m not going to talk to a majority of the council members. I’m going to go talk to the city manager.’”
“I was stunned and shocked,” said Fulkerson. “The emails that [Bhardwaj] sent were very thoughtful and appropriate, and to find out they were posted on a public blog are unbelievable.”
Fulkerson, who previously served on the Board of Supervisors and the Arcata City Council, said that people in government commonly check things out with each other, because “not all of us know exactly what to do every minute of the day. We work together as a team.”
A heated three-way argument erupted between Morgan, Fulkerson, and Bhardwaj. Soon the audience members joined in the fray.
“I read Mike’s blog,” said Pat Morales, who had once served on the council. “I was absolutely shocked. I was disgusted and I was disappointed. The City Attorney’s email went on that blog. That could be attorney to client privilege and you broke it.”
“You’ve violated their trust,” she continued. “Each one of these people had their own personal computer, and that was their personal talking to each other, asking questions of each other. Then you accuse them of breaking the Brown Act, which they didn’t do.”
“I read the comments in that blog,” said Trinidad resident Kim Tays, “and it’s very hard for me to see that the blog was done with good will.
“I’m not trying to drag anybody through the mud, but I didn’t create this mud,” said Morgan.
Richard Johnson, the chair of the city’s Planning Commission, observed that the city government was dysfunctional, and needed the services of a counselor.
After nearly an hour of wrangling, the council went on to other issues.
(Editor’s Note: Section 54952.2(b) of the Brown Act states, “Except as authorized pursuant to Section 54953, any use of direct communication, personal intermediaries, or technological devices that is employed by a majority of the members of the legislative body to develop a collective concurrence as to action to be taken on any item by the members of the legislative body is prohibited.” The Brown Act may be read by members of the public at the California Attorney General’s Office website at http://caag.state.ca.us/publications/2003_Intro_BrownAct.pdf.)

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Uproar over Trinidad Councilman’s Blog

  1. Seems to me he has a point.

  2. Anonymous

    Can someone explain to me why their city attorney doesn’t know squat about the Brown Act and took part in these e-mails?

    Hope he is working for free because it doesn’t seem that he is doing a good job.

  3. Reading the emails is as interesting as the dilemma.

  4. wire tap

    Julie lets the lefts secret out. They always have their plans in order before public meetings. What a surprise to poor Julie that her private e-mails don’t block the brown act. Thats for those little people,workers and conservatives anyway. Not us cool,hip, groovy,intune, progressive saviors of the world.

  5. TLW

    I am amused at the indignity of some of the authors of those e-mails…but not in a good way.

  6. Richard Marks

    I guess some people are not ready for “transparent” government. Too bad. People who are worried about this happening need to put a disclaimer on the bottom, “Not to be duplicated or shared with the public.”

  7. Anonymous

    When you are a member of a board, commission or council any document between members is a public document unless it is a letter or email sent to legal council by one person asking for opinion, decision, etc. When more than two members contact each other that is a Brown Act violation as when they are on that board, commission or council they have given up just being a member of the community they have become the decision makers. For Julie to say it is common for those in “government” to talk to each other is what the problem is about. Too many times this is happening. Any one of them take their required ethics course which would have made this very clear that it should not be done.

  8. Thank you guys for your hard work, and thank you for posting this. Now I can reference it in my posts for those who cannot get a copy of your paper.

    Sincerely, Mike Morgan -Trinidad

  9. melinda moser

    boring gossip

  10. jackdurham

    If you’re bored by it, so be it.

    But it’s hardly gossip. This is about city business and how it’s handled in relation to the Brown Act.

    The Trinidad City Council has a history of problems when it comes to the Brown Act.

    Perhaps ongoing education is needed for members. It would be a wise investment.

  11. Anonymous

    The people who left these comments are confused about the Brown Act. It is also called the “Open Meetings Law” and requires legislative bodies to decide agenda items in open meetings with public input. Councilmembers can’t develop concurrence in advance of an ACTION of the Council.It doesn’t ban communication about ongoing City business, referrals to staff, or discussion about past actions of staff.

    Whether any of the actions in the article, including Mr. Morgan’s, were done in the most tactful or effective way is another question. But there is no violation of the law here.

  12. re: jackdurham- of course I agree about BA training, or at least a new policy to prevent this mess from starting again in Trinidad. That is what I asked for anyway.

    re: Anonymous 2/4, – Tactful communications? My suggestion for any City Council is to follow the CA League of Cities recommendations to set their Councilmember Communications Bar much higher than the ground floor level of the Brown Act. It is easy to do when they hold themselves, and each other, to even just a little higher standard. Constituents certainly deserve better than their Council tactfully not breaking the law.

    Forget tactful and effective, and that their was no BA Violation – email discussions like those are unfair to residents, unnecessary and the Council can and should do better by their constituents.

  13. I think it could be argued that there was a violation. The preamble to the Brown Act clearly states its spirit and intent, preventing it from being misinterpreted.

    What Morgan pointed out was that council members were heading in the direction of the ‘slippery slope.’

    I agree about tact being another matter. Morgan could have remedied this matter while still allowing his fellow team members to save face.

  14. re: tact and saving face
    Most of the participants have been cautioned before about emailing, so there shouldn’t have been a need to save face. I do like these people and I’m grateful for their service, so I did work for a month to find a different way to get commitment and fix the issue. Even after publishing the discussions, and the embarrassing public attention we all received, we still have no new policy clarifying and guiding our Councilmember to Councilmember communications. I don’t know what to do next.

  15. I think the official solution would be to put it on the agenda: establish policies regarding communiques between councilmembers.

    What this all looks like is some sort of cultural matter: All reason says you are right; then what explains the attitude and reactions of the (particularly vocal people) who attend meetings? That’s where tact comes in. People who get things accomplished in Humboldt County must learn how to negotiate the culture. Humboldt County, even Trinidad, is conservative (resistant to change) and resentful of radicalism (the tendency to change).

    The way to get things done around here, in my opinion, is to establish your ethos before attempting to change anything.

  16. anonymous

    Thank you, Indie, for a sane and balanced commentary. Read the Feb 18th Press for the next part of this story: Mike Morgan’s sexist and demeaning comments about constituents who disagreed with him. This speaks volumes about Morgan’s motives and credibility. A real leader builds consensus to work with issues rather than smearing people.

  17. Indie: I tried your suggestion at my very first meeting as my first Agenda Item – JANUARY 14, 2009 X.3. Council Policy on Communications among Council Members/Staff. The Council asked me to remove the item after discussion, so I did. I thought we were going to work on it more once we removed the confidentiality cloak imposed by our Lawyer – that doesn’t seem likely now. At least I’ve made my point, and set my personal Councilguy to Councilmember communications to a much higher standard.

    Anon: The posting is up. Maybe you’d like to read it – again? If these two had been guys, acting the same way that night, then the Bobbsey Twin comment would be the same (there were 2 twin Bobbsey girls and 2 twin Bobbsey boys). They would have been behaving like little boys. Again, look at what prompted the post – their rude child-like behavior in the audience, not that they disagree with me on anything.

    http://councilmembermikemorgan.blogspot.com/

  18. It looks like a tough position to be in.

  19. anonymous

    Mike is not being truthful here. His original post, a copy of which is on file at Trinidad Town Hall, referred to the women as “boobsie twins” and “girls-of-maxim kind of girls.” He removed the worst comments before reposting a sanitized version on his blog. (How many of you even know what Maxim Magazine is? Google it!)

    There’s no law against an elected official referring to girlie magazines, retaliating against his constituents with crude and sexist remarks, or saving face by covering his tracks. But most hold themselves to a higher standard. Personal attacks, sexist language, and fudging the truth are not acceptable in our leaders.

  20. @anonymous you are confused.

    No tracks are covered, or statements sanitized (lol). The post is still up in my archives at the above address as is the mis-represented statement re: Maxim Girls. I was not comparing Kim and Pat to Maxim Girls in any way. I didn’t call them the “boobsie twins”.

    That is what some people are reacting like though. Pat and Kim were acting like little girls and that’s the characterization of the word I was humorously defining. Characterizing the word “girl” not Kim and Pat. My attempt at humor was obviously confusing and a mistake. It doesn’t change my appropriate characterization of their little-girl-like behavior that night.

    I understand the miscommunication. I apologized for unintentionally stirring up their emotions around their perceptions and judgements of Maxim women. I will continue to explain this to any anon or other person who continues to try to mis-state my intentions. Everyone else will have to be patient with them, and consequently, me.

    Anyway, it looks like this is mostly behind us. Pat Moraless exploded at City Hall the other week, flipped me off with both hands, and called me a f*ck3r – I think she’s through … for now.

    I’ve spoken with Kim and I think this is behind us, though she seems to be carrying a grudge, rather than forgiving the unintentional part of my post.

    I haven’t spoken with Alice, Kathy’s mom yet, but I’m available to her anytime.

    Stan, our Mayor, continues to run more organized, respectful, and fair meetings.

    -Mike

  21. anonymous

    Before believing anything Mike says about other people, call Trinidad City Hall, 677-0223 and ask for the minutes for the February 11, 2009 Council meeting, WITH ATTACHMENTS. This is the ONLY place the original post with its “boobsie twins” and “Maxim-type girls” language still exists, because Mike removed it from his blog and from the Google archive. One of the women he targeted asked to have the original post included in the meeting minutes, to keep it in the public record after just such a whitewash as has occurred here.

    Read the original post for yourselves, and ask if you would like to have your daughter, wife, or yourself written about in this manner by a public official.

    Should the rest of Humboldt County care about bad behavior in a small town? YES: Mike says he plans to run for the County Board of Supervisors.

  22. “Trinidad City Hall, 677-0223 and ask for the minutes for the February 11, 2009 Council meeting, WITH ATTACHMENTS. This is the ONLY place the original post with its “boobsie twins” and “Maxim-type girls” language still exists …”

    Like they don’t have anything to do but help support your hurt feelings? Anyway, I’ll indulge you … a little more. I have contacted our office, and will post everything you are talking about.

    I have nothing to hide, wasn’t trying to hide anything, and you are being ridiculous.

  23. “Trinidad City Hall, 677-0223 and ask for the minutes for the February 11, 2009 Council meeting, WITH ATTACHMENTS. This is the ONLY place the original post with its “boobsie twins” and “Maxim-type girls” language still exists …”

    Like they don’t have anything to do but help support your hurt feelings? Anyway, I’ll indulge you … a little more. I have contacted our office, and will post everything you are talking about.

    I have nothing to hide (including who I am while online LOL). I wasn’t trying to hide anything, and you are being ridiculous.

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