Crashing the Principals’ Office

By Brett Baker

Over the past several weeks, the media has reported on “secret meetings” being held behind closed doors to set the course for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  Resources Agency Director Lester Snow went before the DSC last week to refute the reports of “secret meetings” saying they were due to insufficient fact checking on the part of reporters and news media.

On the morning of September 30th, 2010, a BDCP principals meeting was convened at the California Farm Bureau Federation off of Garden Highway in Sacramento. Those on the invite list included BDCP steering committee members who were only privy to the discussion, but not allowed to speak.  (Melinda Terry of the North Delta Water Agency- the sole Delta rep in the room –  told us that she was offered a seat for having signed the planning agreement, but not offered a speaking seat.)  Speaking seats were reserved for “principals”- representatives of the entities who have financed the planning process-the finest display of pay-to-play I have never seen in government.

A group of four individuals Bill Jennings, Dan Bacher, Jim Beuttler, and I walked into the conference room unannounced, and were welcomed by complete silence and awkward stares.  It was as if the scent of the Ganges on a warm summer evening had followed us into the room, which is ironic when one realizes that we were there to protect the Sacramento River.

As folks attempted to regain composure, we were asked by the meeting facilitator to introduce our selves.  So we did. She then recommended to the group that we be allowed to stay as did David Nawi, Senior advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Interior.

The meeting was recessed, and immediately a group convened in the hallway to discuss how the “principals” would like to address our presence.  It could be described as a secret meeting within the secret meeting.

We were approached by the meeting facilitator, and asked to leave for the sake of equity..Apparently, other folks, including Senator Lois Wolk’s staff, had been turned away because the “principals” felt it was a necessity to have closed door discussions in addressing such contentious issues.  The meeting facilitator then attempted to pacify our concerns, saying the entirety of the discussion would be reported to the Delta Counties Coalition(DCC)  next Thursday (October 7, 2010).   Of course this reply begs the question, “If they intended on reporting the entirety of the discussion, what was the harm in letting us stay?”  After all, we should trust them to self-disclose the decisions that they reached in private that will greatly affect Delta communities and water resources for the entire state for centuries to come.

The meeting facilitator also informed us that if we were to stay that we must swear to remain silent for the remainder of the meeting and not report the names or attribute quotes to any of the folks in the room.  Specifically, folks in the room had agreed to a non attribution clause, because having the dialogue around the table attributed to any one particular entity may be problematic for the entity’s public relations efforts.

We responded that as American citizens we felt we were entitled to our first amendment rights and could make no such promise. She went on to say that this was not a first amendment issue, and the discussion digressed from there.

Lester Snow then called her out into the hallway for a brief discussion and she returned to ask us to leave. Mr. Jennings, for clarifications sake, asked if she was prepared to have us arrested if we refused. She replied that they weren’t.  Overall, the meeting facilitator was pleasant and courteous as were we.  We were then told that if we did not leave, the “principals” would have to leave.

And leave they did.  The meeting was not reconvened, and following Lester Snow’s lead the attendees began to slowly file out of the room.

As this event was scheduled to be a two-day meeting. I surmised that they might hold the next day’s meeting at the Federal Building in downtown Sacramento, where security is a little tighter.

As our fate was being decided in the hallway, we were greeted by environmental observers (others relegated to non-speaking seats), Kim Delfino from Defenders of Wildlife, Cynthia Koehler and Ann Hayden from Environmental Defense, and Gary Bobker of  The Bay Institute.  We also had a polite talk with Jason Peltier of Westlands Water District.  We made small talk and joked about the deficiencies of the process.

The last two principals remaining in the room were Roger Patterson and Jeffry Kightlinger of Metropolitan Water District, who also followed us into the parking lot for a bit of civil discussion.

I feel that we walked away with a new found respect from the folks in the room.  Several told us that for the most part they understood and even supported our bit of formal protest.

On a personal note, I felt like I was able to exercise my rights as an American that morning, and having done so now posses a much better understanding of Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does”

All in all we walked into the meeting at 9:20 a.m., and discussion ceased by 10:30 a.m.  The room was empty and the only sign that a meeting had occurred were the empty coffee cups left around the table.

It was encouraging to feel a victory in this war on the Delta- no matter how small.  Today is another day, and our work continues…

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