PLAYA DEL REY, Calif., Feb. 1, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary H. Strobel has ruled that the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission violated the California Public Records Act by refusing to disclose records relating to a multi-million dollar wetlands restoration project. The Commission is one of twenty eight National Estuary Programs overseen and funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, a Los Angeles-based environmental advocacy group who filed suit against the Commission last February (LA Superior Court Case No. BS154128), expressed hope that this ruling will increase transparency for a project that has suffered from numerous controversies and delays. Land Trust attorney Sabrina Venskus called the ruling a victory for environmentalists and public interest advocates. "The principles of open government are essential to a sustainable environment and a healthy democracy," said Venskus. "When public officials operate in secrecy, the public's natural resources become vulnerable to exploitation."
According to public records, $139 million in public funds was used to acquire private land, formerly owned by business tycoon Howard Hughes, to create the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve over a decade ago. The reserve provides critical habitat for migrating birds and other species of wildlife and plants. Records show that the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project, which must ultimately be approved by the US Army Corp of Engineers, is over three years behind schedule.
Court records show that the Commission, a public agency, claimed that its staff members worked on the restoration project purely in a private capacity on behalf of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, a private non-profit entity that hires and pays most of the Commission's staff members. However, the court ruled that the evidence reflected otherwise and ordered the Commission to release its project documents to the public.
Land Trust President Walter Lamb said he hopes the ruling serves as "a wake up call" for the US EPA and other government agencies responsible for monitoring the work of the Commission. "The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission brazenly attempted to hide public records behind its private foundation that it knew would shed light on the Commission's questionable stewardship of an important natural resource," said Lamb. "The public deserves a more open and collaborative planning process for the management of the Ballona Wetlands."
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SOURCE Ballona Wetlands Land Trust