"Fish and game commissioner out after 18 days
By Ed Zieralski, UNION-TRIBUNE
Originally published September 28, 2010 at 12:24 p.m., updated September 28, 2010 at 1:58 p.m.
Michael Sutsos was such a new appointment to the California Fish and Game Commission that his photo still hadn’t been posted Monday on the Commission’s Web site.
No need to put it up now. Sutsos, 56, of Sonoma, who was appointed to the Commission on Sept. 9, by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, appears to have been unceremoniously unseated Monday, 18 days later, by the lame-duck California Governor. Sutsos sat in on one, two-day Fish and Commission meeting earlier this month, and now he’s gone.
Calls to Schwarzenegger’s office and the Fish and Game Commission were not returned. And Sutsos could not be reached. But Dan Richards, one of Sutsos’ fellow commissioners, said he received a call about it on Monday. Also, George Osborn, who represents several fishing organizations and the California Fish and Game Warden’s Association, said he was told Sutsos was removed from the Commission.
“Obviously he wasn’t going to vote the way the Governor wanted him to vote,” Osborn said. “He was more conscientious about California’s marine resources than he was about politics.”
The Ocean Conservancy, which throughout the process has backed the most severe ocean closures, could not be reached for comment.
Sutsos replaced Commissioner Don Benninghoven, whose confirmation never made it to the state Senate for approval after sportfishing groups complained about his conflict of interest regarding the Marine Life Protection Act. The MLPA, passed in 1999, calls for a network of marine protected areas along the California coast. The Fish and Game commissioners will have the final vote on all sections of the MLPA. The Central Coast and North Central Coast closures are in. The South Coast is in the environmental review period, and the North Coast section already is being worked on.
Benninghoven had been a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force prior to his nomination to the Commission by Schwarzenegger and was viewed by both sportfishing and commercial fishing groups as a “shill,” which is what fellow Fish and Game Commissioner Dan Richards of Upland called him in an interview today.
“This just shows how corrupt this process is,” Richards said. “This process, the Marine Life Protection Act, is so corrupt, so offensive it’s unimaginable. Gov. Schwarzenegger is a forked-tongue devil.”
Richards and Jim Kellogg, the president of the Fish and Game Commission, were joined by Sutsos on a recent vote to extend the deadline for comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the South Coast Region of the Marine Life Protection Act. Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ocean Conservancy have been battling sportfishing, commercial fishing and several public agencies on the matter of the extension. Those groups want more time to study the more than 500-page document and then comment on it. Kellogg called for a special Commission meeting, which will be held Wednesday, and Sutsos joined Richards and Kellogg in voting for the meeting to discuss the extension for the comment period on the environmental document.
“The reason I have such a problem with (Sutsos) getting taken off the Commission is that this denigrates and disrespects every person who worked on the MLPA process,” Richards said. “Many of the people who worked on the stakeholder groups weren’t paid, certainly weren’t hired guns. That’s why this is so offensive to me. These people don’t care about what the science says, what the reality is, or how what waters they close will affect people’s livelihoods.”
Richards said he once was one of Schwarzenegger’s biggest financial and political supporters. But he no longer is.
“He’s so worried about his legacy that he will do anything right now to preserve his legacy with this,” Richards said. “I have a feeling when this is all over, he’s not going to like his legacy one bit. His legacy right now is damn the people, the government knows more than the people. I truly hope (Schwarzenegger’s) legacy is appropriately tarnished by this.”
Richards said the first sign he saw of the Governor’s – and his environmental cronies -- complete manipulation of the MLPA process dates back to when Cindy Gustafson resigned as Fish and Game Commissioner. Many suspected Gustafson told Schwarzenegger’s staff that she wouldn’t vote for the more severe network of closures called for by the MLPA. When Gustafson let Schwarzenegger’s people know, she was forced to resign. Benninghoven moved over to the Commission seat from his role as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, which oversees the MLPA stakeholder groups and sends the final ocean closure options to the Commission. The Blue Ribbon Task Force also has been criticized for being biased in its approach due to its environmental connections through task force member Meg Caldwell.
“Benninghoven was a plant by the radical environmentalists,” Commissioner Richards said. “(Sutsos) was asking reasonable questions about fisheries and what fisheries in California were in trouble. He sounded like one of the most reasonable people I’ve ever met. He was a reasonable voice who asked reasonable and intelligent questions.”
Richards said when Sutsos asked if any California fisheries were in crisis, the Department of Fish and Game staff could not identify one that was.
“That’s because when we did have fisheries in trouble, the federal and state regulations were changed to protect those species and bring them back,” Richards said. “Now those species have rebounded, and the Department says there isn’t one species that is in crisis. Yet these radical, left-wing environmentalists want to put up massive reserves to keep people from fishing. It’s all being funded, this takeover of California’s marine resources, by the Packard Foundation, backed by a billionaire with nefarious intentions. They are anti-fishing, anti-hunting, anti-people.”
Richards said the removal of Sutsos by Schwarzenegger will backfire on the Governor, now in the last months of his administration.
“They’ve already been sued (by fishing groups) for how corrupt the MLPA process has been,” Richards said. “This will anger even more fishermen and other groups, like the eight to 10 major public agencies who have requested more time to read this environmental impact report. That’s the problem this Governor is going to have. He’s not just fighting fishing groups with agendas. There are public agencies who want more time, too. But the radical environmentalists who are controlling this don’t want any public comments they’ll have to address. They want to limit comments and stifle input, which is exactly opposite of what the California Environmental Quality Act is all about. It is set up for legitimate challenges.”
Richards said he is speaking out because Schwarzenegger can’t do anything to him like he did to Sutsos.
“I’m confirmed, and he can’t pull me off the Commission,” Richards said. “He’s stuck with me.”
Richards said he once was a giant supporter of Schwarzenegger.
“I really believed in him,” Richards said. “That’s why this is so shocking to me and so disappointing. It’s like Fantasy Land up there in Sacramento these days. None of this is going to get us anywhere.”
Richards predicted that the MLPA closures will be overturned in court once all the corruption is exposed that went on with the process. He said a judge will look at the lack of time given for the environmental document in the South Coast Region and throw the document out.
“What (Schwarzenegger) did here with (Sutsos) is the height of arrogance, but it’s foolish beyond belief,” Richards said."