You Can’t Hang a ‘Quiet Please’ Sign on Democracy

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As you might imagine, my eye stopped at this headline during my morning perusal of Saturday’s Los Angeles Times print edition: “Press fights City Hall.” (The online headline is different.)

It was James Rainey’s take on the brouhaha at L.A. City Hall over reporters’ access to council members during regular city council meetings.

The L.A. City Council chambers have become too noisy. At least that was the claim made by the council last week when it moved to bar reporters from talking to council members during meetings.

From Rainey’s column:

Reporters had for decades been able to ease up to a council member during a meeting for a quick point of clarification or to insist on an answer. … [The] new rules, reportedly designed to maintain order and reduce noise during council meetings, prohibit reporters from directly approaching the lawmakers.


They force deadline-addled members of the Fourth Estate to go through aides (not always available) to get to the bosses. The rules also require a uniformed sergeant at arms to escort scribes to an adjacent meeting room where interviews would be allowed.

It is a shocking example of official hubris. The council has decided that it is not acceptable for a reporter to question a representative of the people while said representative is in the midst of conducting the people’s business. It is, in short, a ban on the essence of democracy.

Unfortunately it’s not at all surprising. Government officials make similar — albeit usually less brazen — attempts to shut down democracy every day. It happens in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Mission Viejo, the County of Orange.

And then there are the attempts that are just as brazen. Consider the recent behavior of Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez. As Voice of OC and others reported last month, Alvarez, if given the opportunity, will take it upon herself to decide who can, and who can’t, speak at Santa Ana City Council meetings.

There is always a cover story, just like the alleged noise issue in L.A. Alvarez, for example, said she is simply limiting personal attacks. But the real reason such actions are taken is that the officials don’t want to answer questions. And it’s not hard to understand why, especially in these times.

The questions are tough. Why are you choosing to cut this service instead of that one? Who is hurt when you cut this service? Why are you firing this person instead of that person? Who does that person know?

Most of the time officials are able to dodge these questions. They hide in their offices and don’t answer their phones.

Part-time council members — in cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, Mission Viejo and Costa Mesa — are the most difficult to track down. They’ll give out a secretary’s number at city hall where messages can be relayed. They often take days to get back to reporters, if at all.

When reporters visit an Orange County Supervisor’s office, they are met with an ornate glass wall — that cost taxpayers $300,000 — and a receptionist’s window.

The official reason for the wall is the personal security of electeds. The backstory is that the wall was put up after the supervisors were inundated with visits from angry residents with pointed questions in the aftermath of the county’s 1994 bankruptcy.

Despite these obstacles, our system is designed to provide, on a weekly, or biweekly, basis, a day of reckoning for the public. Rainey describes it elegantly:

Records requests can go unanswered for days, phone calls unreturned. But when the City Council meets in the ornate, marble council chamber, the city’s lawmakers are flushed from their offices into the open. The balance of power shifts, ever so slightly, and the narrow window on the public’s business opens a little wider.

Try as it might, we can’t let officialdom hang a “Quiet Please” sign on our democracy.



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