Santana: OC Supervisors Attack on Free Speech, Comes Under Attack

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Orange County Board of Supervisors discusses public comment at its January 2019 meeting.

Orange County supervisors love the pomp of public office.

Yet they truly hate the public part of elected life.

In recent years, supervisors have waged an intense campaign against the public’s First Amendment right to redress their government at the public dais by continually amending their board rules to restrict public comment.

The effort has been so systematic that it’s now landed them in court – subject to an ACLU lawsuit.

“The Orange County Board of Supervisors has not only ignored the pleas of its
constituents,” reads the lawsuit, “it has also actively attempted to silence the people, stifle debate, and shield its members from criticism by erecting barriers to the people’s participation in Board meetings and abusing the power vested in the Board.

Specifically, the Board uses its Rules of Procedure to limit the right of the public
to address the Board during public meetings, thus violating the California and U.S. Constitutions and the Ralph M. Brown Act.”

Anaheim resident and business owner Jeanine Robins is the lead plaintiff in the case, representing the People’s Homeless Task Force, which has increasingly attended supervisors’ meetings to protest official actions on homelessness and been restricted in their ability publicly comment, the lawsuit alleges.

County officials have issued a blanket denial to reporters seeking comment, saying they are confident their meeting rules are defensible in court.

Note that these are the same folks who insisted they could legally pull off their homeless evictions at the Santa Ana riverbed last year and instead landed in federal court, putting every city’s anti-camping ordinances in jeopardy.

In this case, it shouldn’t take a judge very long to see what our reporters have chronicled again and again: a pattern of petty behavior and uneven standards that has left county supervisors, and ultimately local taxpayers, vulnerable to this type of First Amendment court challenge.

Given their open disdain for public comment and public meetings in general, Orange County supervisors have systematically moved in recent years to meet less in public.

When they do meet, they severely restrict public comment.

Supervisors have moved around the timing of the public comment period, now at the second half of the meeting, making it really challenging for the general public to have a time-certain where they can address their county elected officials on a weekly basis. Note, this is a civic center complex that charges stiff rates for public parking.

The ACLU lawsuit notes one stark example. At the June 26, 2018, the clerk received 19 speaker request forms but only nine people were able to wait long enough to speak.

“This drop suggests that the long wait for the public comments period to begin deterred individuals who had signed up to speak from actually making their comments,” reads the ACLU complaint.

Orange County supervisors, in their meeting rules, also make people follow legally dubious procedures to comment on items, limit the times a member of the public can raise concerns at a meeting and even cut people off during the shortened timeframes they allot for public speaking. They also shut down meetings.

Supervisors also enact speaking limits in uneven ways – meaning that powerful special interests represented by lobbyists get to speak while general members of the public get tons of restrictions and time limits thrown at them – with attitude.

Yet their most ridiculous requirement is the limits they impose on how they are to be referred to, with limits on criticizing them directly – even speaking to them from the dais.

It’s a truly twisted, regal vision of who is in charge in Orange County and a standard, much like our homelessness policies, that has unfortunately been allowed to stand.

Until now…

ACLU officials in their lawsuit note that the most recent meeting rule changes in 2018 – putting the public comment period at the end of meetings – really reduced the amount of public interaction.

“That unpredictability manifested itself in the average number of public comments per meeting in the six months before and after the change: participation declined from an average of 24 public comments per meeting to an average of fewer than eight,” reads the ACLU complaint.

Our reporters have consistently in recent years written about these kinds of actions, aimed at stifling dissent – stretching over nearly two-dozen stories over recent years. Many of them cover instances mentioned in the ACLU lawsuit.

In this era of shrinking media oversight, county supervisors have consistently moved to limit the amount of public meetings – making it easier to have scripted gatherings when they do occur – and have even sped up the official destruction of public documents.

They have convinced themselves no one is watching.

That means unless you wield money, power or influence, this crew isn’t interested in your perspective, especially if your take is different from theirs or is critical of their decisions.

This current crop of county supervisors truly hates sitting through the public meetings. You can see it on their faces. They don’t debate much. They don’t get passionate about much.

And they really hate getting called out, especially in public.

Yet we are all taught, correctly I think, that “We the People,” is why our government, a representative democracy, functions better than most.

In our very own, Declaration of Independence, our forefathers laid out a bold vision for self-governance setting the high standard that to really secure our inalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, governments ultimately must derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Declaration even seemed to have it’s own open records and meetings section, complaining that the King “has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

Fatiguing into compliance.

It’s a common tactic used by powerful interests that doesn’t seem to go out of fashion.

Yet thankfully, as Americans our family history consistently features people like Jeanine Robins, who stand up to official bullying and defend a standard set long ago.

Free people can’t be fatigued into compliance.