July 9 2014 10:08 AM

San Diego court case focused on local-chapter powers of grassroots organizations

John Stump at the courthouse with his favorite hiking stick
Photo by John R. Lamb

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."

—Mario Andretti

San Francisco-based Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune announced on Monday that—as a 50th-anniversary nod to the federal Wilderness Act— he and his family "will be hitting the road this week to experience some of America's most scenic wild places first hand."

An accompanying map indicated that Brune had settled on a northerly trek, dashing any hope he'll drop by San Diego, currently the wildest of the wild places among cities that have a Sierra Club chapter.

Brune may be headed into the forest just to get away from John Stump v. Sierra Club, a civil lawsuit that pits one of San Diego's most venerable activists (and a bevy of high-profile character witnesses) against one of the world's most venerable environmental-advocacy organizations.

Stump is a regular fixture at City Hall, but last week he found himself a few blocks away, seated before Superior Court Judge Katherine A. Bacal with his attorney, Bob Ottilie. Michael Ward, an Oakland-based attorney flown in to represent the Sierra Club national office, sat alone opposite the pair.

At issue, Stump would explain later, is how much autonomy local chapters of national organizations like the Sierra Club are afforded in choosing their own leaders and priorities. In the case of the Sierra Club, Stump clearly believes not so much.

"One of the biggest dangers in democracy is if a group can gain power and then become a tyrant and suppress the rights of the minority," Stump told Spin Cycle. "The message here is, ‘Don't stick your head above the line because we'll whack you, little mole.'" 

Stump served a brief tenure as chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter's Executive Committee in 2012 before being notified by the national office that he had been removed from that position—as well as a key national advisory post—and banished from seeking any elected position in the Sierra Club for life.

In February, the national Sierra Club board voted to suspend the San Diego chapter for four years, citing "ongoing conflicts and divisions."

The reasons given for Stump's original suspension, Ottilie told the court, were threefold: threatening an employee, threatening and harassing club members and an unspecified financial allegation.

But months later, after an investigation conducted by the national office, the reasons for Stump's ultimate banishment changed. The employee-threatening charge couldn't be corroborated, despite claims of "multiple witnesses," Ottilie said. That particular reason became: "Interactions with the club's employee Richard Miller that created the perception that Miller's job was threatened."

The other reasons given were "lack of fiduciary oversight over chapter's improper payment of individuals working for the chapter," "a leadership approach that contributed to a schism within the chapter" and "forwarding of information about Richard Miller during the investigation that the club deemed irrelevant and damaging to Miller."

In a declaration, Stump said it was not he who forwarded 18-year-old court records that showed Miller—the local club's development and communications director—had pleaded guilty to a drug-sales charge involving methamphetamine. Bill Powers, a Stump supporter and former Executive Committee member, said he provided that information to the national office because he was uncertain Miller had mentioned the conviction when he applied for the job and because the drug sales occurred near his daughter's school.

Spin Cycle reached out to Miller for comment, but there was no response.

David Grubb, the current chapter chairman, had no comment regarding the lawsuit and would say only this about the personal nature of the internal squabble: "I think you are smart enough to know when you are being played." He declined to elaborate.

Stump contends that it's Grubb and Miller who have created the most recent adversarial atmosphere at the local Sierra Club chapter. As far as schisms within the chapter are concerned, he and other past leaders note that such splits are the rule rather than the exception and date back well before Stump joined the club in 2008.

The problem with this case, Ottilie noted, is that the national office has made little effort to back up its allegations with any evidence. The argument put forth last week by Ward, the Sierra Club's attorney, was focused squarely on whether the court had jurisdiction over the decision-making process of a private organization.

"I've done hundreds of court cases," Ottilie would say later. "I've never been in the situation where the other side doesn't have any evidence."

Conversely, Stump submitted 10 exhibits and 32 letters of support from a spectrum of San Diego leaders, volunteers and friends, including former City Councilmember Donna Frye and Regional Airport Authority CEO Thella Bowens. "When the honor roll of publicinterest servants in San Diego is called, John's name will be on it," said former City Attorney Mike Aguirre in his letter.

Ottilie argued that national Sierra Club officials violated their own bylaws, providing neither evidence to support the charges nor Stump an opportunity to appeal his ouster. The Sierra Club, he said, basically argued, "We are a lawless organization that doesn't even have to follow our own rules that we created."

Ward countered that Stump had his opportunity to make his case at the national level. Ottilie argued that Stump faced the same person at appeal who notified him of his suspension.

Ward said case law prevents courts from "interpreting laws of a private organization," whereby "you're interfering with that organization's autonomy to do that for itself."

Stump, however, said the alternative raises the question of whether an organization like Sierra Club is run "from the bottom up or the top down. Is it grassroots or Astroturf?" 

In the end, Judge Bacal on Tuesday decided she would make no ruling, Ottilie told Spin as CityBeat went to press. "She said there was no ‘ripe' controversy for the court to rule on. She's wrong on that because he's been banned from holding office for life."

Ottilie declined to say whether the non-decision would be appealed. 

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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