When is a public meeting a press conference? When is a press conference a public meeting? Is the press public? Is the public ever the press?
And just what is Tom Whetten's beef?
Recently, these questions danced on the reddish head of Daniel Patterson, a feisty ecologist with the Center for Biodiversity. On March 25, Patterson was crudely yanked from a mountain lion press conference at the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Tucson offices. His arm was twisted behind his back, and his fingers were painfully tweaked. This handiwork was achieved not by an AGF officer, but by Whetten, the agency's Southern Arizona public information guy.
A retired TPD cop, Whetten apparently experienced a spectacular flashback to his badge-toting days. And soon after, Patterson received a trespassing and disorderly conduct citation from TPD, no questions asked. He fought the charges in court July 21 and awaits a judge's decision as of press time.
But even when resolved, this rumpus raises questions about Game and Fish policy, the public's right to speak out and TPD's odd handling of certain activist cases.
Tension was smoldering March 25, with mountain lions allegedly stalking Sabino Canyon hikers and loafing around a nearby middle school. At first, AGF officials were unruffled; in a March 2 e-mail, Whetten noted that, "Except for not yielding to people once or twice, and being seen on numerous occasions this is a non-problem ..."
But the sightings had sparked typical neighborhood hysterics, often by the same witlings helping draw cougars into the area by feeding javelina and other big-cat prey. And the agency was still haunted by the 1996 bear mauling of schoolgirl Anna Knochel on Mount Lemmon--and the $2.5 million the state forked over in a settlement with her family.
Some now suggest the feds were also exerting pressure on AGF to remove the cats, one way or another. With beefy fees for visitors, Sabino is a cash cow for the U.S. Forest Service. And each day it remained closed meant less money in the till. But Sarah Davis, a Forest Service public information officer, says all decisions regarding the animals "were ultimately made by Game and Fish officials."
Regardless, AFG was under the gun, and its remedy was simple: The cats would be killed. However, that didn't sit well with wildlife activists, or with Gov. Janet Napolitano. Already, the governor was chafing at her lack of control over an agency run by an independent, appointed commission.
"While public safety is paramount," Napolitano wrote Commission Chairwoman Sue Chilton March 11, "it appears the decision to shoot was made abruptly within the last few days with no public input or exploration of other options. It is clear to me that in directing the agency, the commission needs to create a more effective and collaborative approach in dealing with perceived threats from wildlife."
But Chilton--an Arivaca cowgal who rarely hides her contempt for all critters unworthy of a rump roast--wasn't swayed. "Mountain lions along the northern edge of Tucson have been a growing concern for months," she replied in a letter to Napolitano. "We note that two schools, an elementary and a middle school, are located within 1,000 feet of the Sabino Canyon entrance. In issues where human-wildlife conflicts occur that pose a significant threat to public safety, we continue to stand committed to our belief that public safety must come first."
Still, much of the public opposed killing the lions, and environmentalists strongly questioned their removal. Backed into a corner, AGF officials--including Regional Supervisor Gerry Perry--were getting touchy. But the agency finally capitulated; the cats would be captured, and removed to a shelter in Scottsdale.
As the March 25 press conference ended, Perry grumped to reporters that groups pushing for relocation ought to foot the hefty price tag. That's when Patterson observed, outloud, that no conservation groups actually wanted the cats removed at all.
Immediately, Whetten planted himself before Patterson, ordering him to boogie. Within seconds, Whetten and an AGF officer were steering Patterson by the elbows. Nearing the door, Whetten showcased his arm-and-finger-twisting routine. Patterson was shoved into the door on his way out, cutting his head. And as those doors closed, Whetten was seen raising his arm to strike a blow.
This is odd behavior for a community relations fellow, and Whetten might have managed a more delicate interaction while surrounded by reporters with cameras rolling; soon, the incident was splashed across the evening news. Guy Atchley, Channel 9's diligent monitor of mayhem, was noticeably stoked. "And look at this now!" he remarked, as the Patterson video rolled.
And when the dust cleared, Patterson got a citation rather than an AGF mea culpa. "We didn't press assault charges against Tom Whetten," he says. "We were willing to just let it go with a apology from Gerry Perry over how this meeting was handled. Then they go and file charges."
Nor did TPD even interview him, he says. "Apparently, they weren't interested in my side of the story."
Or that of Kieran Suckling. Last August, Suckling, director of the center, was charged with criminal trespassing and assault after demonstrating at a Southern Arizona Home Builders Association press conference. Environmentalists were protesting SAHBA's drive to plant more stucco in pygmy owl habitat. Suckling planted himself on the association's couch and initially refused to leave.
At the request of SAHBA, Suckling was arrested three days later for assault, disorderly conduct and trespassing. Jeffrey Rogers, an attorney for Suckling and Patterson, calls it a disturbing pattern. Suckling's assault charges "were ridiculous," Rogers says, "and that's partially the fault of the Tucson Police Department for making charges before they interviewed Kieran. In fact, they never interviewed Kieran. They just listened to these people at SAHBA, took (SAHBA's) word as gospel, and charged him with a crime."
Ditto for Patterson. "We did try to get the detective to talk to us in the Patterson case, and he said he would come down and talk to us," Rogers says. "But then when he came to talk to us, he said the decision had already been made to charge (Patterson) and not to charge Whetten, who had assaulted Daniel.
"I think it probably is a pattern of harassment. And I think the Tucson Police Department is taking a position that they are going to go after the people at the Center for Biodiversity any time there's a complaint, without really doing any investigation into it."
A phone call seeking for a response from TPD was not returned.
But Game and Fish spokesman Bob Miles says Patterson broke an agreement that he could attend mountain lion press conferences if he kept his mouth shut.
Patterson denies any such agreement. "I think the point that Game and Fish is trying to make," he says, "is that there is no chance to say anything at all about their policies."
Unfortunately, his legal fate hinges on a single, unanswered question: What "is" an AGF public meeting, and what is not? Bob Miles, a department spokesman in Phoenix, doesn't add much clarity. Gerry Perry's press conferences "weren't advertised to the public," Miles says. "But we didn't exclude anybody.
"Daniel Patterson requested attendance at those media briefings, and we allowed Daniel Patterson to sit in on those meetings with the ... the ... um ... agreed upon ... uh--I'm searching for the right words here, obviously--the previously agreed upon agreement that he would not really participate in our media briefing."
Was the briefing officially closed to the rest of the public, except for Daniel Patterson? "I guess I can't answer that," says Miles.
Nor can he back Perry's assertion that pro-wildlife "groups" had pushed for the lion's relocation. "Unfortunately, Gerry Perry is on vacation, and I'm not able to get his input," Miles says. "I talked to our assistant director, and his memory is not great in terms of specific groups that made that request, but I can assure you that the public was certainly making that recommendation. (Perry) was using the word 'groups' in a general sense."
Either way, Miles says, "I don't think the 'groups' part of it is germane to why Patterson was asked to leave the news conference."
In no uncertain terms.
Or maybe not.