Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu has made sweeping changes to the way City Council agendas are set, board appointments are made by the Council, and public comments and audience decorum are maintained.
But some councilmembers said the moves limit public participation and silence the Council’s minority voice.
“It’s a chilling effect, maybe that’s the desired outcome … the way it was introduced, without any real rationales given. It felt that in many ways the public was a nuisance to this City Council,” Councilman Jose Moreno said after the Feb. 12 meeting. “That’s what it felt like by some of the Councilmembers.”
“To have these three rule changes back to back to back … to me is a direct assault on the value, ethic and promise of district elections to provide a more democratically minded Council — small ‘d,'” Moreno said.
When Sidhu was approached by a reporter, he was only briefly able to answer some questions before an assistant cut off the interview. He did say that clapping is still allowed in the council chambers.
“…everybody will have a chance to appoint planning commissioners from their district or outside the district,” Sidhu said about concerns of commissioners feeling the pressure from the majority of the Council.
When asked if he was concerned the new requirement for putting items on the agenda, with three of the seven councilmembers needed to support placing an issue on the agenda, could lead to some Brown Act concerns, Sidhu’s assistant stepped in.
“Just look at the meeting,” she told the reporter. “Harry, we have to go.”
Multiple times during the Dec. 18, Jan. 15 and Jan. 29 meetings, Sidhu said the changes would streamline city council meetings.
Sidhu’s changes were opposed by Councilmembers Moreno, Denise Barnes and Jordan Brandman — all of whom dissented on each of the three changes.
Moreno and Barnes said the changes could hamper public participation, silence the Council minority and take away voting district representation.
New Agenda-Setting Requirements
Supporters said the new agenda-setting requirements will help better vet issues and ideas, which will lead to more efficient City Council meetings. To get an item on the agenda, a council member now must get support from two others on the dais.
“It’s about limiting discussion and city resources about city issues that may just be dead on arrival,” Councilman Trevor O’Neil said at the Dec. 18 meeting.
Anaheim’s Council meetings used to often stretch past midnight and O’Neil said the new agenda-setting requirements could help curb that because there’s plenty of normal city business the Council is expected to conduct.
“So, we’re a big city, and we’re a busy city and we all know that our agendas are often packed with items. And our meetings can go well into the night and I don’t think it’s simply the democratic process at work (to let one Council member agendize an item). It’s a drain on staff resources and a drain on the public’s time,” O’Neil said. “It’s the right thing to do in order to streamline our meetings.”
Barnes said the move could silence the Council minority.
“Every Councilmember should be allowed to put forth an idea (on the agenda). I can see allowing a need for a second in interest in saving staff time, but needing three votes to get an idea on the agenda seems oppressive on members in the minority,” said Barnes at the Dec. 18 meeting.
Since Anaheim switched to district elections, first using the election method in 2016, because of a voting rights lawsuit which alleged at-large voting disenfranchised minority voters, Moreno said the new agenda-setting requirements could hamper voices and concerns in a district.
“I was elected here to represent an area and I don’t think it would be appropriate for council members to suppress the voice of a geography of the city,” Moreno said.
Barnes echoed Moreno’s comment.
“As elected officials we all earn the right to bring forth issues important to our district. My district deserves to be represented,” Barnes said.
But Councilman Stephen Faessel said the agenda-setting requirement can make members more cohesive, which will lead to better governing.
“So I would support this with the idea that if anything, this brings us, we will have to work together. If we work together, we will be more efficient. If we’re more efficient, we will have better government,” Faessel said.
Councilwoman Lucille Kring said the city’s council members will support proposed agenda items out of courtesy.
“I don’t think this is intended to suppress anybody from a district,” Kring said. “I would never just not support somebody’s agenda item because you’re in a different district, because you can do the same thing to me. So we have to play nice and have to play fair.”
But efforts to get an item on the agenda under the new procedural rules could conflict with the Ralph M. Brown Act, a state law governing transparency in local governments, Moreno said.
“For example … if I got to Councilwoman Barnes …. She says no and I go to Councilman O’Neil and he says no and I go to Councilwoman Kring and now I’m violating the Brown Act by talking about the topic with a fourth member,” Moreno said. “It’s hard enough to really try to figure out this Brown Act together because everything has to — and rightfully so — be in the public.”
The Brown Act is a transparency law that forbids the majority of a City Council speaking about an issue to each other unless its on an agenda during a public meeting, in most circumstances. At the meeting, City Attorney Robert Fabela warned the Council to not discuss agenda ideas and instead show support through a show of hands.
Former Mayor Tom Tait said, in a Feb. 7 phone interview, there are numerous concerns to the new agenda requirements.
“Everyone knows that this new election changed the majority to 5-2, but then changing the rules to requiring three affirmative votes just simply to get something on the agenda, silences the minority voice,” Tait said. “I think there’s Brown Act concerns and I think there’s voting rights concerns … civil rights concerns.”
Tait also said it could lead to public frustration.
“A government exists at the consent of the governed. And if people cannot get an item on the agenda easily — especially a minority opinion — to discuss, I think people will get frustrated,” Tait said. “The frustration can show itself in many ways, none of them good.”
Changes to Appointment Process
Moreno said he noticed a pattern from Sidhu at the Jan. 15 meeting, when audience decorum rules were first proposed and the Council voted 4-3 to require a majority vote on appointments to a city commission or board.
Before Sidhu’s change, councilmembers could single handedly appoint someone to a board after Tait’s proposed changes were adopted in 2017 in an attempt to increase representation of the voting districts the city started using in 2016.
“I’m just finding a pattern. I just — I don’t want to leave the meeting not understanding your rhyme and reason to these agenda items. So the other ones, you did say streamline, but this one, are you concerned at all with the idea that a council representative has to convince a majority to … represent the district?” Moreno asked.
Sidhu didn’t offer details.
“Again, Councilmember Moreno, I do not like to go into detail, but I want to try to streamline this,” Sidhu said. “I’d like to have the majority council vote and I’m still asking every councilmember in every district to appoint within their own district and if they don’t find it, they can go outside (of the district).”
Moreno pressed Sidhu again for details.
“My concern is that the majority would have the ability to veto my appointment. I’d like to hear your thinking on why that would be okay in our current system,” Moreno said.
“I’d like to give more detail,” Sidhu said, pointing to his earlier comments. “But that’s how I support that.”
Brandman said the move goes against the idea of district-based elections.
“We have a system. The system reflects the move to districts and I believe that we should maintain where we are. As they euphemistically say, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” Brandman said.
Councilman Stephen Faessel said requiring a majority vote to appoint someone will better vet people.
“If I choose to pick a resident or prospect in District 5, or anybody for that matter … if I can’t get the consent of my colleagues, maybe it’s not a good choice,” Faessel said.
Before Moreno’s questions, Councilman Trevor O’Neil said most cities in OC require a council majority before appointing someone to a board or commission.
Tait said the move could lead to the Council majority’s wishes influencing commissioners.
“Of course any commissioner will now wonder, will now be concerned about the opinion of the majority, who has a hand in appointing them,” Tait said. “Again, it’s contrary to the spirit of district elections.”
Changes to Council Chamber Decorum
Sidhu also proposed new procedures to restructure public comment, prohibit clapping and booing in the council chambers at the Jan. 15 Council meeting, although the item was postponed until Jan. 29 over concerns about a time limit on when residents can submit speaker cards in order to speak.
The time limit idea was dropped, but speaker cards are now a requirement. Fabela also clarified the Council needs to hear all agenda-related public comments before voting on the agenda items.
“The first public comment period would be limited to 90 minutes or however long it takes to go through those who have to speak about something on the agenda. So it can go beyond 90 minutes and must go beyond 90 minutes The reason we want to do it that way is because the Brown Act very specifically says that you need to hear public comment on agenda items priori to you deliberate on agenda items,” Fabela said at the Jan. 29 meeting.
Like the Jan. 15 meeting, Moreno again said he noticed a pattern from Sidhu.
“There’s a disturbing pattern that you are leading as our mayor. You first agendized — didn’t give us much rationale from the dais, agenda setting. Making it more difficult for us to have our interests, our concerns that may be raised to us. We now have need three members of the dais to agree to setting up an agenda. But you didn’t limit your agenda setting power, but you limited ours,” Moreno told Sidhu at the Jan. 29 meeting.
He said the changes are “sending the signal that our public comments is almost a nuisance, rather than what we should be doing.”
Kring said while the public has a right to speak, the clapping and booing deter people with different opinions from publicly engaging the Council at meetings.
“I understand your concerns Councilmember Moreno. Tonight there was over 40 speakers … the applause and the yelling and the hooping and the hollering to support the speakers was overwhelming,” Kring said.
Kring said one speaker earlier that night “was told to shut up and other unsavory things. That is not the kind of council policy that I can support. If you don’t like what a speaker says, be quiet … very few people come with a different opinion because thy will be subject to hostility.”
At the Jan. 15 meeting, when the decorum item was originally introduced, Kring said she knows some people who now feel too intimidated to come to meetings.
There are a lot of people that used to come here … and to have a nice friendly relationship and then to go across the street to have a drink. Those days are completely gone because they’re intimidated,” Kring said.
O’Neil drew some criticism from the audience Jan. 15 when he said people can’t speak about anything they want during public comment.
“A City Council meeting is a limited public forum and those in attendance don’t have an inalienable First Amendment right to speak on whatever they wish,” O’Neil said, drawing boos from residents.
He said he was concerned about the legality of the changes and the new policy “has to be reasonable and it has to be content neutral.”
After the 4-3 vote, one man started yelling at the Council from the audience.
“You need to be replaced! I’m leaving because you don’t want to heard from the public!” he exclaimed.
“Excuse me,” Sidhu said, as he continuously hit the gavel.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.