As the sun sets on Sunshine Week, Bump and Grind litigants overcome bureaucratic secrecy

Hiker’s persistence blasts through efforts to block public information

by Debbie Fried
Staff Reporter

 

A group of hikers come down the Bump and Grind Trail in Palm Desert (Debbie Fried/The Chaparral)

Originating in March 2005, Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). Sunshine Week is observed annually in March; most recently, during the week of March 11 – 17.  The national initiative promotes the free flow of information between government entities and the public it serves.

Sunshine Week also coincides with the commemoration of James Madison’s birth.  Madison is considered “the father of the Bill of Rights” and is an original founder of the United States Constitution.

Coincidentally, this week also marks the culmination of a local hiker’s persistent efforts to obtain the previously sealed study data that had been used to justify the closure of the top half-mile segment of the Bump and Grind Trail.

Bermuda Dunes hiker, Blaine Carian, the valley’s own version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, arose victorious in Riverside County Superior Court earlier this month. A  judge ruled in favor of releasing previously withheld Coachella Valley Conservation Commission (CVCC) records, sealed in the interest of protecting wildlife.

In a twist of events, the recently illuminated data facilitated the public’s right to know under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Apparently, the Superior Court Judge found the CVCC had violated the tenants of the FOIA, the very objective for which Sunshine Week was initiated.

Carian has led the charge in the ongoing battle between the California Department of Fish and Game. The CVCC and citizen’s groups are challenging the legitimacy of a decision to seal off access to the summit of the Bump & Grind. Carian’s victory, shared by like-minded proponents of restoring full access to the trail, struck an upper-cut to the CVCC.

The CVCC’s long-held position was that the uppermost section of the Bump & Grind Trail was detrimental to “critical lambing areas” of the Peninsular Big Horn Sheep in the Magnesia Spring Ecological Reserve. Unfortunately for the CVCC, protected data did not support this claim.

Upon review of the previously guarded study data, which had a reported cost of around $1 million, findings have been deemed unable to support the claim by the CVCC that the trail was interrupting lambing areas.  Now, after months of insulation from open and aggressive challenges from local constituencies, a judge has ordered the Department of Fish and Game to fork over court costs in excess of $22,500 to cover ligation costs incurred by Carian, the man who began the inquiry.

Clifford Horn, a former mass communication student at College of the Desert, participated in a running class that included running up the entire original stretch of the trail. “When I was a student of Wendy Ansley, we would run up the trail on a weekly basis.  It was then that I pretty much fell in love with it. [The trail] seems to be perfectly tailored for fitness people.  As somebody into fitness, I was bummed about the fence going up.  I remember looking at a map and seeing shaded areas [representing lambing areas] which appeared to be on the other side of the mountain from the trail,” explains Horn.

State Assemblyman and Republican Caucus Chair Brian Nestande has followed the issue closely, and has issued the following statement:  “I applaud Blaine’s efforts with regard to taking on this troublesome issue.  It’s my belief that all data he requested should have been made public; and specifically, this data should not have been kept secret in the first place.  All public requests should be completely open and transparent.”

It is not currently known how long the fence will remain, or if there are any immediate plans to remove it.  Further meetings are to be scheduled at the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) to discuss the future of the controversial fence, in light of the recent court ruling.

The FOIA was the inspiration for the Sunshine Week observance, an act signed by the President in 2009.  A memorandum issued by Attorney General Holder’s office in March, 2009 set forth two standards as related to public disclosure policy:

1)     An agency shall not withhold information, simply because it can do so legally
2)     All reasonable steps should be taken to release non-exempt information to the public.

Non-exempt information, according to the memorandum, includes all items that fall under the umbrella of national security matters, the preservation of law enforcement interests,  and information that protects an individual’s right to  privacy.  The partial trail closure does not appear to have fallen under any of these stipulations, and thereby renders the map Carian sought within the lawful parameters of public inspection.

For more information about the commemoration of Sunshine Week, so named for its efforts toward “shining a light into the inner workings of government”, visit the website:  www.sunshineweek.org.

 

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