• A group of politicians sitting behind a long desk

      A recent Alhambra Planning Commission meeting (Photo – Michael-Lawrence)

      At four Alhambra Planning Commission meetings in a row now (July 1, 15, August 5, 19), commissioners have engaged in discussions about what public speakers should and should not be allowed to say when they address the commission.

      By Sean McMorris

      More specifically, their comments center around whether members of the public should be prevented from speaking if what they say is overly-critical of a commissioner or if what is said, in their view, is “slanderous” or a lie.

      This is such a slippery slope that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, City Hall is not the truth police, nor should they be. Second, the First Amendment. Third, the Brown Act. Fourth, democratic principles. Fifth, really??

      For perspective, let’s look at some of what the commissioners in question said.*

      From the Horse’s Mouth

      Commissioner Allen Sanchez:

      I think it rests with this seat to make sure that we don’t allow opinions that are… have nothing to do with the project to make it into the public record.

      There were some things that were said that seemed to me to be slanderous and what we’re—what I—was looking to establish is a way to have public speech that is factual and not slanderous so that we and this body are not attacked, and so that those inaccurate comments are not made a part of the public record.

      Commissioner William Yee:

      …is there some way we can discourage personal attacks?

      I think free speech is what makes this country great, right—but, if you address the issues.

      …it’s not a slippery slope—as long as you stick to the issues…

      Commissioner Suzi Dunkel-Soto:

      There’s a right to speak, but there’s also a human right of decency and respect for those who are up here and serving.

      I think if we were to talk to the audience and our neighbors the way we’re spoken to it would not be accepted.

      Commissioner Barbara A. Messina:

      So think twice before you follow—you believe— I’m sorry, the fake news that he’s putting out…

      I don’t have to suck it up anymore!

      I can sit here and listen to all the propaganda that they put out but you can’t sit here and listen to the true facts—you only hear what they want you to hear!

      Why the Calls for Censorship?

      So what was so inappropriate that multiple members of the Alhambra Planning Commission have engaged in an ongoing open discussion about how to limit the views expressed by the public? Was it vulgarity? Swear words? Inaccurate statements? Yelling? No, even though these things are protected by the First Amendment and the Brown Act so long as one does not prevent the legislative body from conducting business or other members of the public from speaking. What has stuck in the craw of some Alhambra Planning commissioners is public criticism and greater transparency. Some call it speaking truth to power.

      The Decorum Red Herring

      To be sure, there have been some packed Alhambra Planning Commission meetings as of late, and at times those meetings got heated. Big projects that increase traffic and affect neighborhood character have come before the planning commission over the last several months. One in particular on 801 E. Main Street garnered large crowds for multiple meetings. There were signs. There were passionate speakers, some of whom were very upset and angry about the lack of notification for the project as well as comments made by commissioners who both defended the development and benefited from large campaign contributions from the developer. There were also some boos from the audience, a lot of clapping, and the occasional shout out to rebut something a commissioner said. In short, emotions were high.

      But did any member of the public prevent the planning commission from conducting business or any other member of the public from speaking? Absolutely not. Were some hard truths exposed about some commissioners’ political pasts and their relationship with the developer whose project was in question? Most definitely. Was decorum ever breached? That depends on what your definition of decorum is. In my humble opinion, no, decorum was not breached. But even if you hold a highbrow approach to decorum (i.e. one should keep their emotions in check, never raise their voice, respect authority more than themselves, etc.), the law is very narrow in terms of when government bodies can silence members of the public—and for good reason. The right to organize and speak openly and critically about one’s government is the cornerstone of democracy. That is why it is the First Amendment and not the 27th.

      Yet, there is more going on here than a simple matter of “decorum,” as some Alhambra councilmembers and commissioners would have you believe.

      poeple with signs protesting at a meeting

      Large crowd at one of the Alhambra Planning Commission meetings (Photo – Michael Lawrence)

      A history of Attempting to Silence Critics

      Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that one of the commissioners pushing the hardest for a clampdown on public criticism, Barbara Messina, was warned in 2013 by the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office that she had violated the Brown Act as a city councilmember by not allowing a resident to address her comments to then-councilman Steven Placido or speak critically of him during public comments. The warning prompted a public apology from both the city council as a body and the city attorney. Placido’s 2012 political opponent, immigration attorney Elizabeth Salinas, said the following to the Pasadena Star News at the time:

      Messina and the rest of City Council abuse their power and censor people when they do not like what is being said, or they simply cut them off and tell them that their 5 minutes is up. They oftentimes act like bullies on a playground and it’s quite sad for our city to have officials that engage in such poor conduct. Then they wonder why attendance at the City Council meetings are so low.

      Similarly, in 2018, I was told by then-mayor, Stephen Sham, that I could not look at Councilwoman Messina while speaking during oral communications to address comments she had made about me earlier in the meeting. I was told that I needed to look directly at the mayor when speaking about other council members.

      In 2017, then-mayor, David Mejia, used the Around Alhambra, a monthly Chamber of Commerce newsletter that is sent to every Alhambra resident, to call all those who question or criticize City Hall over the internet, cyberbullies. So disturbed, I wrote an opinion piece about the matter. It appears   Councilman Mejia’s views on public discourse have not changed since then. He recently proposed amendments to a city ordinance that will cut public speaking time in half at all future city council and commission meetings and greatly restrict when members of the public may submit speaker cards to address the city council. More on this later.

      Civic Engagement Ought to be Embraced, Not Snuffed Out

      Alhambrans have recently begun to show up more regularly to city meetings and engage with the various government bodies at City Hall. Some believe this is a result of the City’s 2018 elections where two non-establishment candidates won seats on a city council that has been dominated by the same politicians and special interests for decades. Surely active local civic groups, nonprofits, and local journalism have contributed to this uptick in public participation at City Hall as well.

      Regardless of why civic engagement has increased in Alhambra, it should be welcomed and fostered, not attacked and undermined by spurned powerbrokers, anachronistic politicians, and moneyed interest beneficiaries of the status quo.

      Democratically elected governments have an obligation to be tolerant and open-minded. Even in today’s cynical and polarizing national political environment, this is not pie in the sky, nor is it a tall order. It is basic democracy. It is Government Ethics 101.

      The powers that be do not have to like everything that comes from the mouths of residents and community members, but they should be willing to listen, learn, engage civilly, and promote public participation in government and the policy-making process. If one is not willing to do that, then one has no business in government.

      One thing is for certain, elected government officials and their appointees should not  weaponize “decorum” to achieve personal,  political, and power ends. When that happens, democracy must correct itself lest it spirals into something less than it is meant to be.

      Decorum as a Political Tool to Suppress

      What is really going on in Alhambra is not a breach of decorum, but an abuse of the term “decorum” to shame and discourage detractors of the status quo from speaking and/or revealing uncomfortable truths about city policies and some of the City’s councilmembers and commissioners.  Resident and community member-shaming by electeds and government officials is a form of suppression, and quite frankly, it’s classist. Adults do not need to be chastised by city leaders about respect and manners, especially when those same leaders ignore the mantra when it doesn’t suit their goals.

      None of the Founding Fathers or great liberal philosophers ever claimed that democracy was neat and tidy. To the contrary, democracy is inherently messy with its checks and balances and deference to the public. Yet, the alternatives are less desirable (authoritarianism, communism, monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and plutocracy to name a few). Thus, one does not have to relish in all the disagreeable outcomes of the First Amendment to respect and defer to it as the cornerstone of democracy. At the end of the day, most would agree that the positives outweigh the negatives of free speech. And despite what Alhambra Planning Commissioner Yee might think, not to abide by the broad leeway granted under the First Amendment is a slippery slope. And it’s illegal.

      At the heart of all this “decorum” hullabaloo in Alhambra is not decorum at all, but power: the loss or waning of it by a select few who have disproportionately held it for so long, and the transitioning into it by others who are challenging the status quo and finding their voice and influence at the ballot box. This power struggle is being played out publicly now because those on the losing end of it are desperate. Rather than adapt to new realities, the establishment is resorting to blame, shame, and suppression. However, this strategy will likely only expedite the transition of power the old guard seeks to thwart, as such tactics only legitimize the change opponents of the status quo are advocating for.

      Nonetheless, it appears that at least some of Alhambra’s old guard see things differently, and the public should expect certain Alhambra powerbrokers and political elites to dig in and do whatever they deem necessary to maintain control at City Hall, even if it means engaging in unsavory tactics like shaming, ad hominem attacks, tribalism, misinformation, and silencing—all things meant to subjugate and repel.

      Speaking of which…

      City Council Limits Public’s Time and Ability to Speak

      Alhambra City Hall, amidst all this discussion on “decorum” at the planning commission, The city council put on the agenda —supposedly by coincidence—a first reading of changes to the City’s Municipal Code (MC) that would, with Councilman David Mejia’s amendments, limit public speaking from 5 minutes to 3 minutes per person and prevent members of the public from turning in speaker cards for an agenda item or oral communications if public speaking for those items is already in progress.

      Councilman Mejia added his two amendments as riders to an ordinance (see Agenda Item 25) that was solely intended to: 1) institute Rosenberg’s Rules of Order rather than Robert’s Rules of Order at city council meetings; and 2) remove language from the MC that is illegal under the Brown Act and First Amendment, such as the arrest, prosecution, and barring of public speakers who are engaging “boisterously,” or “making personal, impertinent, or slanderous attacks.” (see Alhambra Municipal Code, Chapter 2.04)

      Ironically Alhambra’s City Attorney, Joseph Montez, spoke at length about how the proposed MC revisions are meant to support the public’s right to speak broadly under state and federal law, not rein them in. Then, very quickly, and with little discussion or public awareness, Councilman Mejia made his motion to add two amendments that will limit public speech and civic engagement at all future city council and commission meetings.

      The first reading of the ordinance with Councilman Mejia’s Amendments passed with only one “No” vote coming from Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler. The second reading of the ordinance will take place at the September 9th, 2019, Alhambra City Council meeting.

      Instructions to scare public speaking

      Sign placed outside Alhambra City Council Chambers

      City Hall Engaging in Scare Tactics

      Despite City Hall’s proclaimed pure intentions for revamping its “decorum” language in the City’s MC, a sign (see above) was placed for the first time outside of city council chambers at the August 20, 2019, Planning Commission meeting next to public speaker cards.

      The language cited on the sign is the same illegal language that is in the process of being eliminated from the City’s MC.

      The intent behind the placing of this sign is clear: to intimidate.

      Imagine going to your first city council or commission meeting and you see this sign as you grab for a speaker card. What would go through your mind? Here’s what would go through my mind as a first-time speaker:

      “What if I become too emotional? What if I accidentally address a comment to a commissioner? What if I look at a specific commissioner? Will my criticizing city policy and/or commissioner approval of a project be construed as a personal attack? If I don’t provide my address for the public record will I not be allowed to speak? Will I be chastised by the commission after I speak? Will my critical comments make my situation worse? Never mind. It’s not worth getting publicly reprimanded and barred from city hall, or angering the powers that be.”

      The posting of a sign with such language on it next to public speaker cards discourages public speaking, critical or otherwise, and civic engagement in general. In the long-term, policies that discourage public speaking lead to a disengaged and indifferent electorate who stays home on election day. This creates a political and governmental environment where cronyism and corruption can flourish while oligarchy masked in democracy rules the day. Maybe that is what Alhambra’s political establishment wants.

      *To read a transcript of relevant portions of the 4 Alhambra Planning Commission meetings referenced in this article click here. View videos of the meetings: July 1, July 15, August 5, and August 19.


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