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San Diego Community Activists Fight For Sunshine On Public Records

March 19, 2012 1:10 p.m.

Mel Shapiro, is a long-time San Diego Activist, he's the 2012 Sunshine award winner from the San Diego society of Professional journalists.He has two published appeals in cases he brought against the San Diego government, Shapiro v City Council and Shapiro v CCDC

Ian Trowbridge, is a San Diego community activist, he's a co-chair of the Navy-Broadway Complex Coalition and Chair of the non-profit, San Diegans for Open Government.

Diane Conklin is founder of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance in Ramona and the Ramona Tree Trust.

Related Story: San Diego Community Activists Fight For Sunshine On Public Records


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: In our first segment today, we talked about how well California is doing letting the sunshine in. And that of course means allowing public access to meetings and records the public has a right to see. But how many people actually take the time to attend open meetings or request public records? Having rights doesn't mean much if those rights aren't exercised bide an involved public. The people joining me now know all about public involvement in San Diego, attend meeting, file lawsuits, they ask questions. They're called activist bias their friend, and gad flies by the powerful people they annoy. They are here to tell us what drives their civic activism, and how the rest of us might get involved. Mel Shapiro is the 2012 sunshine award winner from the San Diego society of professional journalists. Welcome to the program.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Ian Trowbridge is also here, co-chair of the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, and chair of the San Diegans for open government. Welcome.

TROWBRIDGE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Diane Conklin is founder of the mussy grade road alliance in Ramona, and the Ramon -- tree trust. Hello.


CAVANAUGH: Mel, you've been a community watchdog for more than 40 Years. What Drives to you do this work after all these years?

SHAPIRO: Well, probably curiosity, an unbridled curiosity which I can't control. But I started doing this basically in the '70s in Ocean Beach. I had some friends who were very annoyed with housing conditions, rent, condominium conversion, and I got into that, and even had a rent control initiative on the ballot, which we lost. But it didn't discourage me.

CAVANAUGH: It started you down this path.

SHAPIRO: Yes, and now I'm not doing housing anymore. I thought -- I did it for some 20 years, housing activism, and then I got more interested in redevelopment and I got to admit I'm very happy with the most recent decision.

CAVANAUGH: We're going to talk a little bit more about your happiness over what's happened to redevelopment. I want to ask Ian, what about you? Have you always been a civically engaged person-- was there some issue that got you going?

TROWBRIDGE: There was an issue. But I agree with Mel. I was a research scientist by training. So I've got some intellectual fire out of doing this. But the thing that got me going was when the Padres, when the new ball park went in downtown, they had a bond issue, the park was ONE size, and later they got the bonds issued, they tried to reduce it in half. And I thought that was scandalous. And so that really started. And you get sucked into this over time.

CAVANAUGH: That's what I want to talk about. Mel, how much time and energy do you think that you have spent over the years trying to keep tabs on San Diego's government?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's easy to spend a lot of time to it. I might spend half my day it, not counting weekends. But not at night. I'd rather watch the Laker games.

CAVANAUGH: You were you able to do that if the '70s and '80s? Did you work? Were you retired?

SHAPIRO: Actually I retired, I happen to be very fortunate with the shall we say the American way of life, and I spected in the stock market and was able to retire at the age of 40. I lived on the east coast there, worked on Wall Street, and when I got lucky, I took the money and came to San Diego. And I became politically active, Democratic Party, on the democratic central committee and was active in democratic politics. Right now I think I find local politics is more interesting.

CAVANAUGH: How much time do you spend on this per week or month?

TROWBRIDGE: Well, if doesn't really go like that. When issues come up, maybe all day for a week, then there'll be bouts when not so much is done. But just like Mel, I was lucky, I was able to retire at 55. And you only live once. And I had already started getting involved in being an activist or a watchdog. There's a slight difference between the two, actually.

CAVANAUGH: What is the difference?

TROWBRIDGE: A watchdog is interested in open, honest government and seeking out corruption, whereas an activist partially does that, but they also are interested in good public policy. We play a big role in trying to make sure that the shoreline of San Diego is maintained for future generations. So that's a difference in my view.

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Diane Conklin into our conversation. What does it mean to you to be a watchdog or an activist, whichever you classify yourself as? What is it that you actually do? Do you spend your days going through public records?

CONKLIN: Well, when I first came to this area from overseas, I was living in Europe, and I started living in Southern California first time ever, I moved to this quiet neighborhood along historic mussy grade road in Ramon pa. And a friend of mine said, well, there weren't any problems until you came.

CONKLIN: What happened was I found out about all of these various projects that were look literally looking at mussy grade, and may have occurred if we hadn't organized as a community based grass roots organization. We had a road to a casino. We had helicopters from Mira Mar increased, a potential for a commercial resort on our 2-lane winding rural stagecoach road. And eventually, we worked up to an off-road vehicle park that would have been positioned over the San Vicente reservoir, and of course the sunrise power link. So I think it was a matter of looking around and liking what you see, and wanting to keep it that way.

CAVANAUGH: Mel, how do you learn to become a watchdog activist effectively?

CONKLIN: Well, I think other people have their backgrounds and their training. They do not have to learn so much as they have to pay attention. Everybody is capable of doing this. All you have to do is know what's going on in your neighborhood and care. And the other idea for me is empowerment versus disempowerment. Because in our society, there's a lot of messages, I'm sure the other two guests know this very well, of disempowerment. People are told they can't do anything or on or about able to do anything without a whole lot of money. This is absolutely not true. So I think the people who become quote unquote activists all their life, but they've decided to lend their activism, interest, to particular issues because maybe they did what I did, which is you look around and say who's going to help, and you end up looking in the mirror.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask Mel the same question. How to do you learn how to do this effectively, to actually promote a cause or watch over government to make sure that they're doing what they're supposed to?

SHAPIRO: Well, are the way it worked with me is I met this wonderful lawyer, Charles Wolfinger, who was willing to sue for public records request that would be denied by the government. And Charley would be willing to sue on a contingency basis. In other words he didn't charge me. And we proceeded to win just about ten different lawsuits. And of course he was awarded attorney fees when he wins. And I would recommend that for anybody, if they think they have a legitimate public records request that is being denied, that if they're fortunate enough to find an attorney and tell them, well, according to the law, if you win this case, the city must pay your attorney fees.

CAVANAUGH: Ian, you worked with an attorney as well, right?

TROWBRIDGE: Yes, Cory Briggs, who was very important to us because he's a public interest environmental lawyer, and he doesn't ask to be paid in the beginning. If we do sue, we only sue if we think we have a very high probability of winning. And although we get to nations for some of the nonprofits, many of them are sustained by what we win in lawsuits. And unfortunately, the city never learns. It could settle at a very early stage for very little money, yet they continue and charge the public much more than they should be doing for litigation that makes no sense.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a phone call. Dave is calling from Imperial Valley. Welcome to the problem.

NEW SPEAKER: I think what you do is incredibly important, and I'm very grateful for it. Do you think that the media is meeting its obligation as a public watchdog? Do you think that there are enough freedom of information requests and California public records acts requests? It's kind of dry reporting, but I think we all agree that it's important.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think the media is doing its job?

TROWBRIDGE: I think the media is doing a very reasonable job. But you have to remember it's our responsibility to get the facts to the media so they can follow up and write a story. They often don't have enough time these days to do all the work themselves. And the other point I want to make is we're here being interviewed, but there's a whole body of people out in San Diego who help us do the same thing. So we can cover all meetings, we aren't blind sighted so much by the mayor of San Diego. And that's how we operate.

CAVANAUGH: Mel, is the media working the way it should to get out the information you think it should to keep government open and transparent?

SHAPIRO: I'm going to disagree with my friend Ian here. Because I think the media should be doing what we're doing, namely to file lawsuits against the city or county, whatever it is when they refuse to divulge their public records. And I know for a fact that reporters will make a request to the city, the city will ignore them, and if the reporter wants the newspaper to sue, the newspaper won't sue. And I think that's a weakness that should be corrected. And I wish Doug Manchester would correct it.

CAVANAUGH: Diane, how's the media been for you?

CONKLIN: Well, I used to be a journalist. I also have a law degree, and I don't practice. What I do know is the force of state, at least when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s was a very honorable profession headed by personalities such as Walter Cronkite. Remember when we had the Watergate scandal, and what the Washington Post did. All kinds of things happened then that don't seem to happen as much today. But there's an interesting thing happening, and that's the Internet. The Internet has enlivened the discussion regarding government because it's available to so many people. So fundamentally, I agree that with Mel that there needs to be more activism on the part of the press. We need those lawsuits, that watchdog feeling on the part of the press. But at the same time I think that the San Diego press has been doing a middle of the road job. And that the Internet helps to balance that out because it's so widely available.

CAVANAUGH: Ian, you mentioned that your area of interest, of activism has expanded over time. It started out with the Navy Broadway complex. Now I understand that you're involved in something having to do with the Sweetwater school district. How does it happen that your area of interest changes over time?

TROWBRIDGE: Because if really big things happened where we think are corrupt and not in the public interest, we get interested. And again as I said, you get sucked into it as you get more and more facts.

CAVANAUGH: Do people now know you as someone to contact and call if they think there's something going on that needs to be exposed?

TROWBRIDGE: I think they both Mel and I you, and they know Cory Briggs. So yes.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Now, Mel, I hope you don't mind my saying this, you're 84 years old. You just got the sunshine award from the society of professional journalists, but you're not ready to hang up the watchdog title at this point, are you?

SHAPIRO: No, I'm -- well, I'm in a lawsuit right now, and I'm contemplating others.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the lawsuit you're into right now.

SHAPIRO: Well, the lawsuit is against basically the city auditor for who the disclosing complaints that have been made to him, numerous, numerous complaints, over 200. And the only thing the people got to know is about 12 or 13. And we pay for all 200 investigations and the auditor and the city attorney relies on some obscure law that says there's confidentiality. Well, I'm not buying it, and that's why we're in court.

CAVANAUGH: Let me just ask you, Mel, sometimes now people are nice to you, but sometimes in the past people haven't been so nice. Politicians voluntary been so nice to you, sort of, like, you know, moan when they see you and all of that. How do you deal with that?

SHAPIRO: Well, I expect that. But it really doesn't bother me. I don't expect politicians to be nice to me. Although there are one or two that will be helpful, and I would say lately, for instance, sherry Leitner has been very nice, and has give me certain information which I haven't made public yet, but it involves the city attorney breaking the law.

CAVANAUGH: Are you teasing us now with things that --

SHAPIRO: Well, if you want to schedule a program on how the city attorney breaks the law, I'd be happy to participate.

CAVANAUGH: We will think about that down the road. This is not a job to go into fundament to be well-liked, right?

TROWBRIDGE: Certainly, early on, that was true. You weren't liked and you were ignored. And there are still people who don't like Mel, believe me, because he's too persistent. But I just have to say one thing. I congratulate him on his award, but reminded him when you start getting awards like that, people start thinking, oh, we have to give him an award now. He may not be here forever.

SHAPIRO: 15 minutes of fame.

CAVANAUGH: I can't believe it, but we are completely out of time right now. Thanks to all of you.