Santa Ana residents and officials are preparing for what’s expected to be one of the most heavily-attended city council meetings in years, following a dramatic confrontation that ended with the last council meeting being cancelled.
Tonight’s attendance is anticipated by city officials to exceed the council chambers’ capacity, a rare thing in recent years.
An overflow area is planned outside the main council chambers for people who aren’t allowed inside due to the room's capacity being reached.
Among the issues up for a decision is whether to pause plans for Orange County’s first year-round homeless shelter, an issue that has drawn passionate debate. Public testimony will be taken on that and other topics.
The meeting is also the first since the city's investigative report into Mayor Miguel Pulido was published by Voice of OC. The investigation found that the mayor could committed felony crimes when he voted in favor of city contracts for an auto parts dealer after he had profited from a property swap with the firm's owner.
In anticipation for tonight, city officials said that only one news television camera and one photographer would be allowed inside the council chambers, with the video and images shared with the rest of the press via a pool arrangement.
After Voice of OC sought clarification, city spokeswoman Tanya Lyon confirmed that officials would not restrict journalists from bringing handheld cameras.
At the same time, Lyon said officials will likely restrict members of the press from re-entering the chambers if they exit to observe the outdoor overflow area. And the city likely won’t allow journalists to stand against side walls to document the proceedings, she said.
“We’re going to observe to the fire code. As such, if we allow 10 members of the media in there all with a camera, that means 10 members of the public and the community” that can’t attend, said Lyon.
Tonight’s meeting comes two weeks after the last scheduled meeting, where a chaotic confrontation about free speech and respecting police broke out after the mayor ordered the council chambers cleared because a man would not remove a hat with an obscene statement directed at police.
The man, who identified himself as "Bijan," was joined by a group of approximately 20 people who refused to leave and claimed the mayor was trying to shut down free speech.
The most outspoken activist went into a profanity-laced tirade against officers, calling them “pigs” and using other derogatory language. He shouted at Mayor Miguel Pulido as he was leaving the room.
Police officers, some wearing helmets and batons, gathered in the council chambers lobby while activists and journalists filmed the confrontation on their cellphones.
The scene ended with Mayor Miguel Pulido canceling the meeting after a third warning to take off the hat or disperse.
Video of the confrontation went viral on social media, drawing close to 1 million views on Facebook and sparking thousands of comments expressing a wide variety of opinions.
Among those wading into the debate is the American Civil Liberties Union, which cautioned city officials that they cannot restrict public speech simply because they find it “offensive.”
In a letter to city officials Friday, the ACLU of Southern California said the city violated Bijan’s First Amendment rights.
Bijan had been sitting quietly when city officials ordered him to either take his hat off or leave the room, wrote Belinda Escobosa Helzer, the organization’s Orange County director.
“The city cannot banish Mr. Bijan from the council chambers or otherwise punish him for a ‘silent, passive expression of opinion, unaccompanied by any disorder or disturbance,’ ” wrote Helzer, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
“Mr Bijan was not acting in a way that impeded the progression of the meeting and the city officials’ request that he remove his hat or leave was viewpoint discriminatory, unreasonable and, therefore, unconstitutional,” she continued.
Helzer urged city officials to, among other things, train their council members, police and staff “to ensure the public’s right to participate in Santa Ana City Council meetings is not restricted or otherwise chilled.”
(Click here to read the ACLU’s letter.)
City officials didn’t respond to a request for comment, sent through their spokeswoman, regarding the letter late Monday afternoon.
Many of the commenters on social media, meanwhile, criticized Bijan’s actions as an immature effort to start a fight with police, while others defended him as having a free speech right to wear the hat.
Several argued for a middle-ground, saying there are legitimate concerns with the police department, but that activists should find a way to more respectfully express their frustrations.
“I do not support police brutality and believe Santa Ana needs to provide better training or tools to our cops for prevention, but would you sit in a church with a hat saying ‘F*** Jesus Christ’ simply because you do not agree with the laws of the bible?” wrote commenter Sonya Walle.
“We need better activists representing our city,” she concluded in her comment, which was “liked” by over 500 people.
Also jumping into the debate is Erwin Chermerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s law school, who said residents have a constitutional right to wear clothing with offensive words.
In a guest opinion piece for Voice of OC, Chermerinsky cited the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California, which overturned a man’s conviction for wearing a “Fuck the Draft” jacket in a courthouse.
“Cohen reflects the basic First Amendment principle that the government may not prohibit or punish speech simply because others might find it offensive,” wrote Chemerinsky, who is also a member of Voice of OC’s governing board.
“The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the speech we want to stop, the speech that makes us uncomfortable and offends us.”
Tonight’s meeting could include a voice that was not present during the recent confrontation: retired police officers supporting their colleagues.
“This is what we, as retired cops are going to be standing up against tomorrow night at the Council meeting. Should be interesting,” wrote Charles Jarusek, a retired Santa Ana officer, in a Facebook comment Monday evening.
“25 year's ago we would have pulled that guy right out of shoes and tossed him out along with all those other idiot’s,” wrote another commenter, Martin Burns, in response.
“This new style of policing just encourages this in your face defiant response........not blaming the SAPD officers that were there I know times have changed and we have to low key these type of events........but man it would have been nice to give that POS some good old fashion attention,” Burns added, using the shorthand for “piece of shit.”
The city’s plans to restrict movements by journalists between the council chambers and the overflow area stand in contrast with how Fullerton handled overflow meetings in the wake of the Kelly Thomas beating.
In those instances, Fullerton officials allowed numerous news photographers and videographers to stand along the walls and document the proceedings while the council chambers were filled at capacity.
Santa Ana’s spokeswoman said the city is trying to accommodate as many members of the public as they can, and that a pool camera situation was deemed to be the best way to do that.
The last meeting’s confrontation came amid rising tensions between the police department and many Santa Ana youth.
It was the second round of a free speech versus decorum battle that began when anti-police protesters heckled and booed police officers while they were receiving commendations at their Sept. 2 meeting.
After that meeting, the main Santa Ana police union sent a letter dressing down council members for not enforcing rules of decorum. The letter also alleged that officers were followed to the parking lot and called “terrorists and murderers.”
Much of the criticism of police has been directed at the recent police beating of Edgar Vargas, and the department’s contract to house federal immigration detainees.
The Vargas beating is under investigation by Santa Ana police and the U.S. Department of Justice. As for the jail contract, city leaders says the contract is a crucial revenue stream to keep jail staff employed.
The tension also comes as many Santa Ana residents express frustration with what they feel is a disconnect between city leaders and working class residents.
That frustration was brought to the fore recently after a woman publicly confronted the mayor for looking down, possibly at his phone, during several public comments.
The video of Laura Perez resonated with many residents, with the video of her comments drawing over 35,000 views on Facebook. She is now running as a write-in candidate for mayor.
Tonight’s meeting is scheduled to start at 5:45 p.m. at the city council chambers (click here for a map). Doors are slated to open at 4:30 p.m.