OC Leaders Discuss Challenges of Public Comment Sessions

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Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait largely struck the right balance in handling hate speech hurled at a city councilman from the public comment dais earlier this year, concluded a panel of experts who gathered to discuss how public comment sessions should be handled.

Anaheim resident William Fitzgerald triggered a countywide rebuke when he hurled an anti-Semitic and homophobic verbal attack on city Councilman Jordan Brandman during an October council meeting.

That day, Tait interrupted Fitzgerald and warned him to maintain decorum and condemned his remarks. But he did not restrain Fitzgerald, who recently lost an ACLU-backed First Amendment lawsuit against the county, from his time at the public comment dais.

While Tait’s council colleagues criticized him at the time as part of an organized attack campaign against the mayor, the experts gathered Wednesday night at the North Orange County Community College District Board Room agreed he pretty much got it right.

“[Tait] actually handled it like the playbook you outlined tonight,” said County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who was in the audience for the event.

The gathering was put together by county supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson, who enlisted help from Rusty Kennedy of the Orange County Human Relations Commission and Lacy Kelly from the Association of California Cities, Orange County.

The idea was to give elected officials a forum to talk through what they can do during tough meetings, Nelson said.

“Speakers may only be removed if they are disruptive,” said Manoj Mate, a Whittier Law School constitutional law professor, in what become the central theme of the night’s discussion. “We need to be cautious when we impose restrictions.”

“In most cases, police intervention should be a last resort,” warned Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes.

Yet there should be caution on restrictions. Council members can and should strongly condemn hate speech when it comes out of the public comment dais. They can even interrupt a speaker to register their opposition, as long as they don’t restrict the time limits granted each speaker.

In fact, Anaheim City Attorney Michael Houston said, the unified chorus of condemnation that came from across the county had a calming effect on ensuing public comment periods at council meetings.

Rabbi Rick Steinberg, an Orange County human relations commissioner from Irvine, underscored that point, saying that elected leaders had an obligation to speak up and confront hate speech.

“We want to hear your opinion” in those kinds of situations, Steinberg said. “You have an obligation to stand up and be heard.”

The October Anaheim incident also triggered a deep questioning among elected officials like Nelson, who wonder just what’s the right thing to do when you’re chairing a meeting and someone starts getting ugly at the public comment podium.

“It’s tougher in the moment,” said Kennedy of the need for good guidance for electeds.

Nelson also said he wanted to ensure that the forum could provide “some substance.”

“I wanted to learn something,” Nelson said of the goal, which was to spread some best practices.

Panelists made a series of important points for elected officials at the local level who have public comment periods to consider.

Because there are many competing interests at council meetings, the public comment period will often get heated. The question facing elected officials is when can you shut a speaker down?

The line is struck at actual disruption.

“As long as they don’t actually disrupt the meeting,” said ACLU Attorney Bardis Vakili.

And Vakili warns, “actual disruption means actual disruption.”

“Stand back when you can” is the best rule when speakers go off, Vakili said.

Exceptions are what are called “fighting words” generally aimed at inciting violence.

Generally, city councils can put certain restrictions on public comment such as time limits as well as place and manner limits.

“What you can’t do is restrict based on viewpoint or content,” Vakili said.

Spitzer said the discussion helped illustrate the real need for some sort of training materials for newly elected officials who may not be adept at handling tough meetings.

“We don’t have a common playbook for those of us who officiate meetings,” Spitzer said.

“I was so frustrated by the criticism of Tom,” said Spitzer, criticizing the Anaheim council majority over the episode and stopping in midsentence to apologize to Councilwoman Gail Eastman, who was seated in front of him.

“Unless the electeds … are on the same page, we create confusion,” Spitzer said.

Kelly said the association would likely follow Wednesday’s forum next year during planned training sessions for newly elected officials.

“Our members are asking for direction,” Kelly said.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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