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.)