The Anaheim City Council majority Tuesday night backed away from a coordinated attack to blame Mayor Tom Tait for not stopping a council gadfly’s anti-Semitic and homophobic rant, instead forming a united front with the mayor to condemn the hate speech.
Several public speakers, however, remained sharply divided over whether Tait appropriately handled the incident.
During the public comment period of last week’s special council meeting, William Denis Fitzgerald shocked the chamber by declaring that “evil Jews” like Councilman Jordan Brandman were to blame for hatred of the Jewish people and the genocidal crimes of the Holocaust. Fitzgerald ended his rant with a homophobic slur.
“This council does not condone such behavior. Although it may be legal, it is not right, nor moral,” Tait said, calling Fitzgerald’s comments “despicable.”
Said Brandman: “We must stand together in upholding the great values of inclusion and mutual respect. … All residents have the right to feel safe in their own community, and we must condemn utterances of hatred that threaten this most basic right.”
The comments by Fitzgerald — a well-known gadfly whose screed has been uttered at council meetings going back to previous Mayor Curt Pringle’s reign — didn’t become a public controversy until Councilwoman Kris Murray and a lobbyist employed by Pringle, whose clients include big business interests the mayor has opposed, contacted anti-hate groups and blamed Tait for not stopping the rant.
The Log Cabin Republicans issued a statement assigning blame to Tait and asked residents to join a protest at City Hall before Tuesday night’s council meeting. That rally, however, never materialized.
Fitzgerald’s remarks came during a special meeting set by Brandman to strip Tait of his power to schedule council agenda items between meetings. Until the controversy, Tait had been conducting a community tour to express his concerns about the current Angel Stadium lease proposal, which he said is a giveaway of 155 acres surrounding the stadium to Angels baseball team owner Arte Moreno.
Critics of the attempt to stir controversy over Fitzgerald’s comments argued that Pringle and Murray had hijacked the hate speech for their political agenda and to divert attention from the mayor’s concerns regarding the stadium deal.
“This whole business is designed to distract people from paying attention to goings on that some people don’t want the public to see,” said Rabbi Joel Berman of Temple Beth Emet, the only synagogue in the city.
But other speakers said that Tait bore responsibility for not condemning the hate speech strongly enough immediately after it occurred, regardless of the politics. The speakers included Henry Vandermeir, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County; Kevin O’Grady, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County; David Robert Heywood, a Brandman ally; and Connor Traut, a member of the Ladera Ranch Civic Council.
Tait had interrupted Fitzgerald’s speech and asked him not to be so “mean.” After Fitzgerald made the homophobic slur, Tait admonished Fitzgerald, saying that he has free speech rights but only to a point and that Fitzgerald crossed it.
Other than a few comments made among each other with their microphones off, such as Councilwoman Lucille Kring suggesting that Brandman sue Fitzgerald, no council member at the time other than Tait criticized Fitzgerald’s speech publicly and for the record.
“We understand almost more than any group the need to stand up to hateful speech,” said O’Grady, noting that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are some of the most common targets of hate violence. “The center agrees the remarks should have been ruled out of order.”
City Attorney Michael Houston said that Fitzgerald’s hate speech was protected by the First Amendment, so it would have been illegal for Tait to stop him. And he said that the city’s decorum policy wasn’t violated because the speech did not cause an actual lack of decorum in the chamber.
The courts have ruled repeatedly that the proper response to such vitriol are words from others condemning the hate, according to Houston.
“We are required to allow such speech to occur. But we are not required to condone it,” Houston said.
Heywood said that by remaining silent in the face of an escalation of aggressive and rude speech from upset residents in recent years, Tait, as the presiding officer, was responsible for allowing a culture of hate to fester at the council chambers.
“Why did it take two years Mr. Mayor? Why wasn’t this done earlier?” Heywood said. “We need you to preside over and control these meetings.”
Resident Ricardo Toro said that the anger of residents wasn’t caused by Tait but by a series of corporate tax giveaways, such as the controversial $158-million tax subsidy approved by the council for a hotel developer. The deals have led to outraged residents flooding City Hall, he said.
“Your policies of always supporting the giveaways is creating a problem here,” Toro said.
There has also been some controversy over a statement Vandermeir posted on the group’s Facebook page calling on Tait to apologize to Brandman over the incident and to bar Fitzgerald from speaking at future council meetings.
According Greg Diamond, vice chairman of the county Democratic party, the group’s central committee never voted on the statement. He said the party had in the past only voted on general condemnations of bigotry.
Nonetheless, Vandermeir’s statement on Facebook claims the call to apologize and restrict Fitzgerald’s speech comes from the party.
“As vice chair of the DPOC, he was not speaking for the party with anything else he said, especially when he went after Mayor Tait and asked him to apologize to Brandman. … I don’t know why he wrote that it was,” Diamond said at the meeting.
Vandermeir’s Facebook statement also triggered a critical blog post from Chris Prevatt, publisher of the Liberal OC blog.
“As a gay man, I am disgusted by the hate speech Mr. Fitzgerald engaged in at the Special Meeting last week. But I am also disappointed that the Chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County would make such irrational demands in the name of people offended directly by Fitzgerald’s comments,” Prevatt wrote.
At the meeting, Vandermeir didn’t reiterate the call for Tait to apologize to Brandman and prevent Fitzgerald from speaking again. He did, however, urge the council to “find some legal way to not allow such hate speech to continue in this chamber without consequences.”
Despite the controversy, there were other signs that this particular political battle between the council and mayor had subsided.
Each council member thanked the mayor for leadership amid the hate speech, and Tait offered Brandman a seat on the mayor’s task force regarding an initiative known as P21, which is an effort to infuse core competencies like creativity and innovation at schools.
The council also agreed to investigate what can be done legally about hateful public comments and what policy would allow the council to remind speakers of the decorum policy.