From our file of cautionary tales: Several months ago, attorney Richard Quandt, president of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Exchange, attended a “stakeholders” meeting convened by the staff of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board.
He wound up the subject of a criminal investigation — apparently for using the term “bloodbath” in talking about some new monitoring requirements proposed for farmers.
Quandt said he used the term to refer to the economic hardship farmers would face if the regulations were imposed, and not as any sort of threat.
So he was surprised, he said, when two California Highway Patrol officers knocked on his door several weeks later, and told him a complaint had been lodged over statements made at the water board meeting.
When we heard the story, we were surprised, too.
We’ve known Quandt for years, and while we haven’t always agreed with his positions, we’ve found him to be a reasonable person.
Quandt interprets the incident as another example of the disconnect between the regulatory agency and the ag industry. He also views it as an attempt by water board staffers to “silence their critics.”
Roger Briggs, executive director of the water board, strongly denies that his agency has ever attempted to stifle free speech.
Briggs confirmed that the water board staff has reported perceived threats to the CHP — which is responsible for security of state agencies and officials — but Briggs said such incidents are “very few and far between.”
“To say this is a pattern is ridiculous,” said Briggs, who declined to speak about the incident involving Quandt.
The CHP wouldn’t reveal specifics either, other than to confirm the basic facts and to tell us the case has been closed.
Quandt still remains uneasy about being the target of an investigation, however.
We don’t blame him.
We recognize that, in this day and age, public officials must be alert to threats, and we agree they should never hesitate to report concerns to authorities.
But they should also consider the source — in this case, it was someone who had appeared before the water board many times, and had also served on its advisory committees — and the context. In the heat of public meetings, speakers often engage in hyperbole to get their points across. That, in and of itself, is no reason to send law enforcement officers knocking on their doors.
To avoid arousing suspicion, though, we urge members of the public against using any type of violent imagery when communicating with public officials, whether it’s in person, by phone or in writing.
One final note: The Macmillan on-line dictionary defines “bloodbath” not only in the traditional sense, but also as “a situation in which a lot of businesses close or a lot of people lose their jobs”
Still, Quandt said he’s banished the word from his vocabulary — and anyone planning to speak before the water board would be wise to do the same.