As reported in the Orange County Register, The Orange County Board of Supervisors dealt another blow to free speech at county meetings.
A few weeks ago, John Moorlach initiated a proposal to limit the amount of time a member of the public may speak during an open session of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. It was narrowly defeated 3-2 with Bill Campbell among those who chose to preserve 1st Amendment rights rather than punish the general public for the sake of a sole gadfly.
Michael Klubnikin, who has legal and personal issues with the Superior Court and the Public Guardian, has taken a somewhat creative approach over the past few months to harangue the Gang of Five. Rather than prohibit him from speaking on issues because they either have been brought up before or because they do not fall under the purview of the Board, Moorlach chose to paint a large swath by attacking free speech in general and limiting all speakers to three minutes per item and a total of three items per meeting. The defeating vote looked like that was the end of it until a subsequent meeting, where Klubinikin spent a more than an hour, three minutes at a time, to harass the board.
After that meeting, Campbell changed his mind and told Moorlach that he would be inclined to vote with him in abrogating free speech at board of supervisors meetings. On Tuesday, another vote was taken and the rule change, with some modification to make the limit a 9 minute aggregate, passed 4-1 with Supervisor Janet Nguyen the sole dissent.
ACLU attorneys said the decision coming from a body that is supposed to serve the people was dissappointing. And, although Terry Francke, a free speech advocate and attorney said the decision appeared to “comport” with the Brown Act, he did not sound too happy about the decision.
Nguyen’s dissent is unsurprising. As a Vietnamese-American, she understands the chilling effect supressing free speech can have in a democracy. What is surprsing is Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Republican and near-libertarian, voted with the majority. Given his stated views on the limitation of government and the 2nd Amendment rights of people to bear arms, Nelson, along with Nguyen, should have taken the lead in opposing this measure. His opinion to the contrary would probably have swayed Campbell who has had trouble, throughout his stewardship on the board, making decisions on his own when it comes to issues such as this. And, for once, we agree with Darrell Nolta, a frequent speaker and critic of the OC Board of Supervisors when he asked why Moorlach needed such a draconian approach of suppressing the free speech of everyone to rein in one voice.
So why the limits? Granted, few people want to hear one person continuously drone on about their personal problems every few minutes. And, no one disagrees that the board has better things to do with their time. Klubnikin, unlike Darrell Nolta, spends considerable time spinning each issue he speaks on before the board into his personal saga of troubles with the county and courts. But, rather than use existing rules to further prohibit abuse of his right to speak, the supervisors decided to limit everyone. And, there is little comfort in Moorlach’s assertion that the board would have discretion to allow variance when necessary. If limiting the possibility of lawsuits, as Bill Campbell asserted, is one reason for the rule, then allowing this type of discretion will probably lead to a likelihood of a lawsuit when it is perceived that the board is allowing their cronies and advocates extra time but not those who they perceive as adversarial.
For the time being, it looks as if the Orange County Board of Supervisors will have their way. How long will it be until individual city councils will follow suit? As it stands, few people actually speak before the government councils because they feel their voices are not heard. Folks like Nolta who, while often perceived as gadflys, believe themselves to be acting in a watchdog capacity, may now pay the price for expediency.
We’d like to know what you think of this issue? Should a governmental body, whose purpose it is to listen and serve the public, be allowed to unnecessarily limit the right of the public to address them simply for the sake of expediency?
This week’s fairly long agenda is marked by a notable absence – no closed session discussion of the TUSD lawsuits. There are the usual suspects, however. They include conference with legal counsel on exposure and initiation of litigation and a new liability claim from Gaurav Sasspal. There is also discussion over the sale and disposition of Tustin MCAS property.
On the Regular Agenda, their are 18 items for approval, most of which come under the consent calendar. Seveal of these items may be pulled for discussion. My bet would be Item 7, Tustin Ranch Road Phase 2 Improvements. For some reason, the city council always seems the need to discuss the extension whenever it comes up on the agenda. Folks who live in the area, however, should know that the upcoming phase will include lots of noise from the pile driving equipment as well as a suspension of the railroad’s quiet zone program that squelches train horns in the area. While most of the noise will be during the weekdays, there will be some weekend activity to accommodate the railroads. The city’s website is supposed to have up-to-date information for local residents in the affected area. I know it’s tough, but it’s progress. And just think, you will eventually have a direct rout to the District….oh….
Item 11, Biennial Conflict of Interest Review, should also be pulled for discussion. I realize the city, in conformance with state law, is required to have certain classes of employees file annual reports under conflict of interest laws. The additions recommended to the City Manager in the staff report include upper level management from several departments, including positions in the city manager’s office, the community development and the police departments. But, there are several questionable deletions, including that of the Police Civilian Commander and a Senior Redevelpment Project Manager who, although the RDA has gone away, I am sure is still working for the city in some capacity.
The fact is, most positions, from supervisor to executive manager should be filing conflict of interest documents. After all, this is a city that claims transparency in government. If that is the case, it is a small issue to have employees at the lower classifications also fill out the forms. Oh, and post them on-line, of course, so we can decide for ourselves whether that Mercedes they are driving is due to graft or their paycheck.
Item 14, Police Department Vehicle Purchases also deserves a look. The police are seeking to purchase replacement vehicles for some of their fleet. Unfortunately, the city, in deciding to seek the absolute lowest bidder, will go outside of Tustin to McPeek Dodge of Anaheim for the units. Under normal circumstances, I would applaud the city for saving us money. But, just how much money did they save by going to Anaheim?
McPeek’s was the low bidder at $27,465 per unit or $219,720 for all eight vehicles. Tuttle-Click Chrysler, the local dealer here in Tustin, came in at $28,045.30 or $224,362. That’s less than $5,000 dollars difference to shop locally. It wouldn’t take too much for staff to justify the purchase and the goodwill toward our merchants is immeasurable. Maybe the city council should reconsider this issue, especially since the conversion work will be performed in the city of Orange, leaving nothing for our local businesses.
Item 16 will allow the city council to set interview dates for applicants to the Planning Commission. The tentative date is October 2, 2012, at 4:30 pm. The city has yet to announce the vacancy left by Chuck Puckett when he became a candidate for the Tustin City Council. Is a month adequate notice? Will Jerry and the Gang of Three muster a new shill in time?
It’s that time of year, again. Oh, I mean for the first time. It was unfortunate that most voters did not understand the true purpose of the City Clerk’s Office to, among other things, act as a non-partisan, unbiased, reflector for the city council. As an independently elected position, the Clerk held a counterbalance that has often been needed in city politics. In 2010, the voters chose to do away with another key component of city government and rest the fate of the city clerk in the hands of the City Council. Make no mistake, this was a move made by the Gang of Three to consolidate power on the dais and remove any semblance of dissent that could not be immediately dealt with. Yes, the City Manager will have the authority to hire and fire. But, who do you think will be behind the scenes, particularly if the City Clerk dissents in opinon with the city council? We see how that worked for Julie Folcik, the City Clerk of Costa Mesa when she was replaced after a scheduling error.
Item 17, Delegation of Authority to Appoint City Clerk, will vest the authority to appoint the city clerk to the city manager. Do not expect to see a hiring notice on the city website. This will be a purely political appointment. And, it does not matter much which way the council decides on this as the alternative is to allow the city council to make the appointment directly. Some choice.
The elephant in the closet is Item 18, Response to July 2, 2012 Grand Jury Report. We recently wrote about the slap-down Jerry Amante received from the Orange County Grand Jury for attempting to bully staff at a Brandman/Chapman University into quashing a scathing report on city manager salaries and benefits. That report created a scandal in Orange County government circles when the report outlining the exorbitant salaries and benefits enjoyed by city managers was made public by the Orange County Register.
Now, the city staff, in lockstep with Hizzoner, has come up with a plan. The evil plan is diabolically clever: Deny everything and claim the grand jury is infringing on the good councilmen’s First Amendment Rights. Did you expect anything less?
What the city’s lawyers failed to comprehend is the fact that, according to the OC Grand Jury, these two councilmen (Amante and Songstad from Laguna Beach) were acting in their capacity as city councilmen to bully an educational system into quashing an embarrassing report. That fails the First Amendment smell test in my book.
It apparently fails several smell tests, as even Shirley Grindle, the long time activist and government watchdog for the county, took notice and publicly stated her dismay:
These two officials owe professor Fred Smoller a huge apology for their unethical behavior. Then they should resign from office as they have clearly shown a lack of judgment and an abuse of their power as elected officials.
Public officials should not be able to use the access their office affords to influence an academic curriculum, which is what Songstad and Amante succeeded in doing. The Association of California Cities, that went along with their efforts to do so, should have had the fortitude to say no as this is clearly not an area that a taxpayer-funded government organization should participate in.
While Grindle went as far as demanding a resignation from the two errant councilmen, Tustin resident will be satisfied knowing Hizzoner’s days are numbered. However, a response should certainly not be, “we have free speech rights”, when it was obvious what these two tried to do on behalf of virtually every city councilman in Orange County. How about censure, as one of the staff agenda options listed?
In any case, this issue involves a sitting councilman who should recuse himself from both discussion and voting on this matter.
So, there you have it. We plan to attend the city council meeting this week. We will also be tweeting live from the audience. That is, until Jerry spots me and sends his goons to oust me from the room.