Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Parent activist Sally Smith suffers fate of Dr. Almeda Starkey: kicked off boards that didn't like what they had to say

See all Sally Smith posts.

Ever since Sally Smith got ousted from the Serra High School site council, I've been trying to find a story I read a few months ago about a woman who was ousted from a planning board, and reinstated by a judge.

I searched the SDUT archives and Google, all to no avail. But today Shannon Lopez, Assistant to the Editor, answered my request for help.

Veterinarian kicked off panel prevails in court
by Greg Moran
Sep 27, 2009
Dr. Almeda Starkey of Pine Valley sued to regain her seat on a county conservation program committee after county officials ousted her.

At all of seven typed paragraphs long, the statement that Dr. Almeda Starkey read at a meeting of a San Diego County land-use steering committee in May 2008 doesn't appear particularly controversial...

But that short statement would get Starkey kicked off the committee two weeks later by county planning officials.

It also touched off a court fight that ended last month when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county had violated Starkey's First Amendment rights, and ordered her back on the committee.

In a five-page decision, a three-judge panel said the record "flatly contradicts" the county's claim that Starkey was removed because she was uncooperative.

"The only identifiable act that led to Dr. Starkey's removal was her reading of a brief, prepared statement into the record of a committee meeting," the panel wrote in an unsigned opinion. "Viewpoint discrimination of this nature is particularly odious under the First Amendment."

The case drew the attention of Californians Aware, the California First Amendment Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union, who all sided with Starkey. They said it highlighted a key principle in First Amendment law -- that governments cannot squelch a point of view they simply don't want to hear.

Starkey's return to the committee may have to wait. Budget cuts have led county planners to suspend the committee's work, so it is no longer active.

The East County Multiple Species Conservation Program is intended to map out large habitat preserves to protect threatened and endangered species and would impose land-use restrictions on large chunks of property.

Starkey was brought on the committee to represent the San Diego-Imperial County Cattlemen's Association, which is concerned about the plan's effects on private landholders in the backcountry.

In her statement last year, Starkey proposed creating the preserve on publicly owned lands and private lands that were already designated for conservation. That approach would exempt agricultural lands, including ranches, from the habitat preserve.

Once land is designated part of the plan, Davis said, changing its use -- such as putting in different crops -- is almost impossible.

"We have most of the acreage the county would be looking at, and we needed a seat on the committee," Davis said.

Getting that seat was difficult, he said. In 2007, the association sought a seat, but county planners balked...

Starkey was stunned. The committee was supposed to solicit different viewpoints, and that was what she had done. "That's what democracy is," she said...

A request to interview Murphy and other planning officials was referred to Ellen Pilsecker, the county lawyer who argued the case. She said it was not anything Starkey said that got her removed, but her overall demeanor.

[Maura Larkins comment: When you have no facts to support your position, you claim that there was a "perception" that the person you don't like did something improper. It's hard to argue with such a claim, but I'm glad that Dr. Starkey did just that.]

"It was more of a perception issue," Pilsecker said. "What I have been told is it was supposed to be a group of people working together, and other members of that group did not feel she was being a team player."

Pilsecker also said that before Starkey was on the committee, she had been trying to obtain documents from the county under the state Public Records Act. Her lawyer had written the county to say that if not all the records were produced, Starkey might sue to get them -- a step that is allowed under the law.

[Maura Larkins comment: Starkey has the constitutional right to petition for redress of grievances. This is the same type of complaint that was made about Sally Smith.]

Pilsecker argued that it fueled the county's perception that Starkey would not be a cooperative member of the committee.

The lawsuit over Starkey's dismissal ended up in federal court. Starkey asked for a court order that would place her back on the committee, but District Judge Janis Sammartino ruled Starkey did not have a First Amendment right to a seat on the committee and sided with the county.

Pilsecker had argued that Starkey could come and speak to the committee as a member of the public.

But Guylyn Cummins, who argued the appeal for the cattlemen's association, said there is a distinct difference between speaking during the public comment portion and having a seat on the committee. (Cummins has also represented The San Diego Union-Tribune in First Amendment and public-records-access litigation.)

Moreover, Cummins said, Starkey's seven-paragraph statement was in response to a request from the committee...

> February 2008:
> Dr. Almeda Starkey is named to the East County Multiple Species Conservation Program steering committee as the representative of the San Diego-Imperial County Cattlemen's Association.
> May 28, 2008:
> Starkey reads a statement into the record during her second meeting.
> June 12, 2008:
> San Diego County officials inform the cattlemen that she is off the committee.
> September 2008:
> Starkey and the cattlemen sue the county, saying her First Amendment rights were violated and seeking her reinstatement on the committee.
> December 2008:
> Federal Judge Janis Sammartino rules in favor of the county. The case is appealed.
> August 2009:
> The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of Starkey and orders her reinstated.

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