The California Attorney General in 2003 put out this handy-dandy guide for elected officials to assist them in following the Brown Act, California’s Open Meetings Law. The guide reminds me of the Robert Fulghum book All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. You see, all I really needed to know about how to live and breathe when dealing with local government I learned in the Brown Act. The Attorney General’s helpful guide reminds me what those lessons are from time to time when I get lost. It doesn’t really reflect wisdom from the top of the graduate-school mountain, rather it reminds me what I learned in the sandpile at Sunday School. For example:
When a member of the public testifies before a legislative body, the body may not prohibit the individual from criticizing the policies, procedures, programs or services of the agency or the acts or omissions of the legislative body. (§ 54954.3(c).) This provision does not confer on members of the public any privilege or protection not otherwise provided by law. In sandpile speak Shut Up! when other people have something to say.
Public meetings of governmental bodies have been found to be limited public fora. As such, members of the public have broad constitutional rights to comment on any subject relating to the business of the governmental body. Any attempt to restrict the content of such speech must be narrowly tailored to effectuate a compelling state interest. Specifically, the courts found that policies that prohibited members of the public from criticizing school district employees were unconstitutional. (Leventhal v. Vista Unified School Dist. (1997) 973 F.Supp. 951; Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School Dist. (1996) 936 F.Supp. 719.) These decisions found that prohibiting critical comments was a form of viewpoint discrimination, and that such a prohibition promoted discussion artificially geared toward praising (and maintaining) the status quo, thereby foreclosing meaningful public dialogue. In sandpile speak Shut Up! let other people have their say.
This portion of the Brown Act is probably the most simple for a government body to follow. Written in plain language as clear as the first word weÂ learned as children in those Dick-and-Jane books the biggest word of all LOOK. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
It really ticks me off when I have to criticize Democrats for breaking the same rules I keep locking horns with Republicans over. This stuff is really getting old.
In the clip at the top of this post, from the public comment portion of the Santa Ana City Council meeting on August 2, 2010, you have Mayor Pulido letting a rogue Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez run public comment, along with the entire purpose of the Brown Act (Accountability) into the ground while he is sitting there playing a fiddle or something. Brazenly, Claudia Alvarez says to the speaker Mr. Albert Castillo,
“I am going to request that your microphone be turned off; And I am speaking now,even though our Mayor is sitting here, because you are personally attacking him. We all know that you’re supporting a contender that is running for mayorship that is not this mayor. I am not stopping you from freedom of speech, I’m stopping you from personal attacks; Because next thing you know you are going to start talking to him saying that he is self interested.”
At this point Mr. Castillo interrupts Councilwoman Alvarez saying that she “is wasting his time” (the time speakers are allowed to speak during public comment). The response from Councilwoman Alvarez is simply unconsionable for a Deputy District Attorney to issue in a public forum; “Well you’re wasting all of ours with your personal attacks.”
To top it off you have Councilman Vince Sarmiento, the other Attorney on the Council admitted publicly that the reason the speaker is being cut off is because his comments are critical of a colleague on the Council, or in his view inaccurate. Councilman Sarmiento tries to couch his words with “no one is trying to cut, or limit your First Amendment right to speak, but if you’re doing it in a way that is offensive then that’s something that’s going to downgrade our discussion completely.” Castillo interjects, “if it’s offensive it’s because it’s a fact.” At this point Mayor Pulido stops fiddling and tries to end the back and forth by saying “well either way we’re out of time” and calls the next speaker.
It should be noted that even with a significantly liberal calculation of the time Mr. Castillo was actually permitted to speak uninterrupted, he did not get close to his alotted 3 minutes of time to speak. None of the reasons given by Councilmembers Alvarez and Sarmiento or Mayor Pulido, are lawful reasons to cut off public comment.
Watch it for yourself at the top of the page.
One final note to the elected members of the Santa Ana City Council; If you can’t handle a little public criticism in the Council chambers, then you’re in the wrong fracking business.