Ground Breaking County Political Figure Sturgeon Takes His Own Life

(August 13) The death of Kip Sturgeon, whose service in elected office marked something of a milestone in San Bernardino County political history, leaves unresolved a controversy over public access to information in the East Valley Water District.
Sturgeon  was among a handful of homosexual men who found success in the electoral process in San Bernardino County over the last three decades in spite of a personal sexual preference that was out of the region’s cultural mainstream. Unlike others in that category, Sturgeon made no effort to hide his orientation.
Sturgeon, who apparently died at his own hand on July 30, was a member of the East Valley Water District Board of Directors for 23 years. He had been a resident of Highland since 1987 and was born and raised in the East Valley.
He had served in the Seabees, the United  States Navy’s construction battalion in the capacity of a  heavy equipment operator. He obtained  an associate’s degree in business administration from Crafton Hills College and an administration of justice degree from San Bernardino Valley College.
Sturgeon volunteered with numerous nonprofit community organizations, including the Burn Institute-Inland Empire, now known as the Fire and Burn Foundation, the Childhood Cancer Foundation of Southern California, Rotary Club of San Bernardino North and the California YMCA. He was also a sergeant in the California State Military Reserve.
Sturgeon generally cultivated positive relationships with fellow board members over the years as well as with officials with companion agencies such as the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District. Late last year, however, Sturgeon became enmeshed in controversy after he facilitated the provision of information relating to the East Valley Water District that at least two of his colleagues considered confidential information.
In January of this year Sturgeon’s strongest rival on the board, Matt Levesque, sought and succeeded in getting the district attorney’s office to look into allegations that Sturgeon provided information pertaining to salary and bonuses for district general manager John Mura that the board was contemplating and which they had discussed behind closed doors.
What is known is that the board discussed Mura’s salary and benefit package during an executive session. The board agreed to utilize a survey of the salaries provided to the general managers of other water agencies to arrive at a consensus of what would be offered to Mura. When the district’s personnel division completed that survey, it emailed a list of positions and salaries to the board members.
Sturgeon has acknowledged that before any vote was taken on what Mura would be offered, he provided a copy of the list to the Highland Community News. He maintained that he believed the list, which contained information that was publicly available from each of the district’s surveyed, qualified as public information.
The other members of the board – James Morales, Jr., Ben Coleman, Ronald Coats, and Matt Levesque, maintained the list was the work product of ongoing closed door deliberations and should not have been distributed to the public.
Coleman and Coats appeared to be prepared to let the matter be redressed by a stern warning to Sturgeon. But Levesque, who had for years been on amiable terms with Sturgeon and had been closely associated with him in their shared charitable fundraising efforts, had by last year morphed into the closest thing resembling a political rival to Sturgeon on the board. At that point, Levesque was  board chairman and, proclaiming himself to be particularly incensed at Sturgeon’s action, said he was determined to see the matter taken up on an official level. Sturgeon had initially denied being the source of the leak, which, Levesque implied, demonstrated criminal intent and consciousness of guilt.
Levesque prevailed upon the board to send the matter to the district attorney’s office and its public integrity unit.
The complaint to the district attorney’s office contained further reference to Sturgeon having publicly disclosed, again through the Highland Community News, that the board was contemplating conferring on Mura a $50,000 bonus. The newspaper then reported on the matter before the board made a public announcement regarding it.
Sturgeon’s board colleagues made the request inviting the investigation into  “possible violations of the Brown Act” by Sturgeon despite suggestions that the board had itself, over Sturgeon’s objections, skirted provisions of the same law by conducting the private discussions without proper and full disclosure, which is itself a violation of another provision of the Brown Act.
The Brown Act, which exists as California Government Code §54950 et sequitur, is intended to ensure that public issues are handled in the open so that citizens can participate in the governmental process. It does permit some degree of confidentiality to be maintained where secrecy is deemed appropriate and premature disclosure of information might be detrimental to the public interest. Government Code Section 54963, which Sturgeon was alleged by his colleagues to have violated, provides that a person may not disclose confidential information that has been acquired by attending a properly closed session to a person not entitled to receive it, unless the disclosure is authorized by the legislative body.
There are loopholes in section 54963, however. Under it, no action can be taken against a person for making a confidential inquiry or complaint to a legally constituted authority concerning a perceived violation of law, including disclosing facts that are necessary to establish the illegality of an action taken by a legislative body or the potential illegality of an action that has been the subject of deliberation at a closed session if that action were ultimately to be taken by the legislative body. Nor can action be taken against an official who has made disclosure of material or discussion from a closed session if that person is expressing an opinion concerning the propriety or legality of actions taken by a legislative body in closed session, including disclosure of the nature and extent of the illegal or potentially illegal action.
Moreover, no violation of section 54963 can be deemed to have occurred if the disclosure involves information that is not in fact confidential information.
Levesque’s insistence that the district attorney be brought into the case was a curious one in that he acknowledged that he violated one of the provisions of the Brown Act, specifically engaging in serial meetings of the board’s members, which is prohibited under  Government Code Section 54952.2(c)(1).
The complaint to the district attorney’s office had not been fully resolved at the end of July, leaving unanswered questions as to whether Sturgeon was considered legally justified in taking the action he did to alert his constituents about how the water board intended to spend the taxpayer money entrusted to it. At this point it is not known to what degree the probe was weighing upon Sturgeon when he checked into the Ayres Hotel, located at 1015 West Colton Avenue in Redlands.
On July 31, Redlands police and then the Redlands Fire Department responded to a call from the Ayres Hotel of a man found dead in a room there, finding Sturgeon. According to authorities, his death appeared to be consistent with a suicide. Sturgeon was 50 years old. The coroner’s department has not released the results a pathology test to determine the exact cause of death.
Sturgeon’s election to the water board came after David Dreier’s election to Congress in 1980 and Bill Postmus’ election as county supervisor in 2000. In this way he falls within the first  generation of San Bernardino County politicians who were able to stay in office despite widespread voter recognition of their homosexuality.
In the cases of Dreier and Postmus, public revelation of their sexual orientation was not voluntary made. Dreier for nearly two decades kept the true nature of his sexual orientation under wraps, at which time his relationship with his office chief of staff became well recognized in Washington, D.C. and slowly made its way to his California district. Postmus, who went on to become both chairman of the board of supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, actively sought to keep his private life from the public. In the course of that, he has now acknowledged in sworn testimony, he became subject to blackmail. By the time he ran for reelection to the board of supervisors in 2004, a growing number of his constituents recognized he was gay. In 2006, an even larger number of the county’s voters had become aware of his alternative lifestyle and he was yet able to be elected county assessor.
Sturgeon, while not celebrating his sexuality, did not seek to hide it. He was elected and reelected six times.
“Mr. Sturgeon was a treasured member of the East Valley family, and a valued friend to Highland and San Bernardino,” said James Morales, Jr., who has replaced Levesque as the East Valley Water District chairman of the board. “We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends during this difficult time.”
He is survived by his husband, Carl Kovach.

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