Across Orange County’s coast, censures and public rebukes have become a hot-button issue over the last five months, with three different city councils choosing to call out one of their members for their conduct.
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The public discussion has sparked a strong reaction among residents on what conduct is appropriate for council members, with some saying a public reprimand is needed while others label it a waste of city resources. Meanwhile, experts say that censures are a necessary part of the process and they can have real consequences come election season.
Censures and similar measures have no substantive effect on a council member’s duties or position, but “represents the formal opinion of the city council and therefore carries weight in the public arena,” according to San Clemente City Attorney Scott Smith.
Fred Smoller, an associate political science professor at Chapman University, said censure is an essential part of the legislative process when used sparingly.
“I think the lesson in this is you have to create a legislative body that can process conflict without destroying itself. Censure is one of those things that’s used to maintain that,” Smoller said in a phone call with Voice of OC.
Last week, Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake was censured by his colleagues for repeatedly insulting members of the public and fellow council members. A month earlier, newly-minted Huntington Beach Councilman Tito Ortiz was threatened with losing his mayor pro-tem title, a largely ceremonial role, for his comments on the COVID-19 pandemic and a refusal to wear a mask at City Council meetings.
San Clemente Councilwoman Laura Ferguson was unanimously censured by her colleagues in November for criticizing city staff and releasing a voter poll the council majority claimed should remain confidential.
Ortiz apologized for his past behavior, tearing up on the dais. After the council told him he could hang onto his title, he promised to do better, comparing his approach to city politics to his time as a UFC fighter.
“I made mistakes in my life. The things that I did, they were wrong,” Ortiz said. “The difference between this and the fight game, in the fight game I get to get in the cage, you get to compete against another man and we shake hands, we say, ‘okay,’ (but) with this, I don’t get nothing like that.”
He has continued to post on social media questioning the effectiveness of masks and vaccines, including one post on Friday stating that doctors who failed to explain the vaccine to patients would be tried for war crimes, but hasn’t had any public outbursts from the dais.
But other council members in Orange County haven’t been quite as receptive to the public criticisms from their colleagues.
At last Tuesday’s council meeting in Laguna Beach, Blake called the censure a “kangaroo court,” and said he never pretended to be anything besides himself when commenters said he verbally harassed them.
“I made it clear when I ran that I was not up for taking verbal attacks from anybody, and I made it clear that if attacked, I would attack back,” Blake said. “There is zero chance this censure is going to stop me … how would that not remove what little restraint I have?”
In San Clemente, Ferguson has followed a similar line, referring to the reprimand as a “badge of honor,” while also stating her fellow council members had no right to censure her because the city has no official censure policy. Months later, she is still debating whether or not to file a lawsuit against the city over the censure.
The censure discussions in coastal towns brought in a slew of public comments, with some praising the councils’ decisions as a step forward in accountability.
“Censorship is long overdue in this unfortunate situation,” said one San Clemente resident. “Laura Ferguson’s petty rivalries are continually a waste of precious time.”
Others have questioned why the discussions needed to take place at all.
“More important than anything else, I think is that Council member Ortiz received the highest number of votes ever cast in this city. That means something,” said one Huntington Beach resident. “If there’s some problems with his behavior, I think there’s certainly a less divisive and much more appropriate manner in which it can be dealt with.”
Some fellow council members have questioned the decision to have the discussion. Huntington Beach Councilman Erik Peterson criticized the council for airing out Ortiz’s conduct publicly.
San Clemente Councilman Gene James repeatedly offered to hold back from censuring Ferguson if she promised to refrain from criticizing city staff publicly. She did not, and he voted with the rest of the council to censure.
Smoller said that legislative bodies, specifically local ones, need a set of rules and decorum to help set the bar for interacting with the public and responding to personal criticisms.
“There are examples of city councils just exploding because these are citizen legislators. They’ll often take conflict very personally. People will get in their faces, and they don’t have the experience that comes with serving a long time in office,” Smoller said. “We have rules in all sports…in tennis, the line judge will call out a player for engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct. The parallel is the same.”
Ultimately, the debate comes down to the ballot box.
“Most people are going to react to the public rebuke. You hope they do, but ultimately it’s up to the public,” Smoller said. “If the person doesn’t change their behavior, people have to decide if that’s someone they want in public office.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.