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Standing Up to Bullying at City Council

by Robert Norse (rnorse3 [at]
This is the extended version of a speech I gave during the crunched-down Oral Communications period at the January 11th City Council meeting. It was Mayor Coonerty's first full Council meeting. I also present some notes on Coonerty's new Oral Communications rules. These punish activists, segregates them from the public generally, and makes it difficult for them to speak on other agenda items and for the public to hear them. They show Coonerty's contempt for the public though he seems to feel they allow for public greater access in what seems to be a cynical political masquerade or a bizarre example of self-delusion. Apparently based on his feeling that activists like me need to be marginalized in order to encourage better citizens to come to Council. Somewhat similar to his "clean out the homeless and the tourists will come" approach downtown.

The federal court ruled against city council last month. Three mayors go to trial for falsely arresting and excluding a member of the public. Me. That was almost 9 years ago. I suggested silently that the Council was acting like a bunch of fascists by silencing the last two speakers.

I did this. [silent Nazi salute] Brief. Critical. Not to everyone's taste. Perhaps counter-productive. But this Council and this room is not made up of babies. We're not in a nursing home. Nor is this forum a G-rated movie or a kindergarten.

And we shouldn't stand for being treated as such. We must restore the right to fully and publicly criticize City Council, or it is no City Council at all. And we are no public, but simply actors in the Council's prefabricated agenda.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said unanimously—its actual words are-- “What a city council may not do is, in effect, close an open meeting by declaring that the public has no First Amendment right whatsoever once the public comment period has closed.” The Court rejected the City Attorney's notion that “the Council could legitimately eject members of the public who made a “thumbs down” gesture, but allow members of the public who made a “thumbs up” gesture to remain. That is, the City Council cannot force the public to be their cheering gallery or remain silent with hands folded during public meetings—provided anything said or done doesn't actually stop the meeting.

Seems simple enough. Yet $130,000 of your taxpayer money has gone to the City Attorney to defend the opposite idea. In effect, you are paying for the right of mayors to silence the public whenever they choose and to cover themselves when they mistakenly crack down.

Apparently Mayor Coonerty supports this defense of mayoral arrogance and is willing to see more thousands of dollars spent on it. He sent me an e-mail this morning rejecting any discussion of the issue. He apparently has no interest in aligning the rules of City Council with the Court's unanimous decision. That's sad. So we move back to court again for the third time later this spring. More money to save the public face of a repressive Council.

So Mayor Coonerty has his own unique idea of what the public's rights are. We've seen that before. He supports a Sleeping Ban for the homeless. His law allows cops to ticket you if sit in your car in a public parking lot. People who walk in New Year's parade without a permit should be ticketed. That's Ryan. Keep Santa Cruz Weird.

But what is more powerful and positive; what comes out of this high court decision is an implicit bill of rights for the community who gather in this room. The court said—these are its actual unanimous from 10 judges: “We decline the City’s invitation to rewrite First Amendment law to extinguish the rights that citizens have when they attend public meetings. We must respectfully reject the City’s attempt to engage us in doublespeak. Actual disruption means actual disruption. It does not mean constructive disruption, technical disruption, virtual disruption, or imaginary disruption. The City cannot define disruption so as to include non-disruption...”

This means to be disruptive, you must actually stop the meeting. Disrupt it. It's not enough to offend the sensibility of a Council member. It's not enough to shout out “nonsense” or boo and be told that if you do that again you'll have to leave. You don't have to leave. You have the right to be here.
You can hiss. You can applaud. You can hold up signs expressing your views. You can say what you want, the way you want it, with whatever visual aids you need up here.

Because the Mayor also knows that people in power get away with what the community allows them to get away with. Speaking your mind at City Council is not a disruption. It's not a disruption when I turn to include the entire room when I speak.

What's the message to the Mayor and the Council. Stop being bullies. Your job is to manage the meeting, not dominate it.

Simply cooking up a new rule is not enough. And there's a long history of that. Check your Sunday Sentinel for an op-ed piece. The First Amendment is still in force in this room, provided you don't stop the meeting from going on.

Tempers may get hot tonight when the issue of rent inspection fees come up. That's no excuse for the City Council to silence you with threats of arrest. Unless you actually stop the meeting from going on—and it doesn't count if the Mayor stops the meeting simply to intimidate you—the Court has ruled, you are within the law and it is the Mayor and City Council who are outside it.

So tonight if some of you come back or some of you out there come to the 7 PM meeting to discuss rental inspection fees---it will be your right to express negative as well as positive things about what the Council is doing and saying. Feel free to do this. Conquer your fear of criticizing authority.

Too many people have said too little about the war and bankruptcy nationally, and the police state climate of fear here in Santa Cruz.

So it's not going to be easy to change this Council—particularly since Mayor Coonerty has a majority. It's going to be up to brave individuals and groups to stand tall in the face of threats and manipulation from the Council. But it can be done.


First a few comments about the City's continuing crackdown on public comment and participation at these meeting.

Mayor Coonerty has moved Oral Communications time--the time the public can speak on all the issues the Council ignores--to a ghetto zone at 5:30 PM--in a kind of no man's land between the 3 PM session and the 7 PM session. Originally there was an indefinite Oral Communications period at the 7 PM period; then it was shorted to 45 minutes; then to half an hour and 3 minutes a speaker. The time was shortened by merging it with the Oral Communications time previously given separately to the Redevelopment Agency. When the Council began holding solo afternoon sessions, it moved Oral Communications to 3 PM. When it had both afternoon and evening sessions, it split the time--ten minutes for the public in the afternoon, twenty in the evening.

Now Coonerty has decreed (without a Council vote) there'll be this isolated half hour for people to speak at 5:30 PM.

This new 5:30 PM time is a strange segregation of activists and independent voices from the general public and the regular agenda items. Its placement cuts off the regular audience from hearing Oral Communications speakers, and the Oral Communications speakers from speaking on other agenda items.

The traditional oral communications time at 7 PM was obviously more convenient for working people who could finish work, go home, eat, and return. But then except for the favored lobbyists, mercantile interests, and conservative residents, who don't really need to attend anyway because their views are already being turned into legislation by the Coonerty majority, the Council rarely pays much attention to Oral Communications anyway.

It's a bad sign. The Mayor wants to intensify restrictive rules and policies. Two minutes instead of three even if that leaves all kinds of unused speaking time. You must bring along five people if you want to speak for an organization and then you only get an extra two minutes for the group rep. Those five won't be allowed to speak at Oral Communications at all, on any subject. Seemingly this denies common sense since six speakers speaking for 2 minutes each would get 12 minutes, while one speaker speaking for the group would only get 4 minutes.

It makes a perverse sort of sense when you understand that the previous rule allowed 5 minutes for a speaker speaking for a group, and didn't limit any other speakers. The rule wasn't abused and used only infrequently. Coonerty, apparently, wants to make sure it's never used.

Full disclosure: I did use it to make the "Bullying" speech above at City Council yesterday because none of the other people with me were prepared to speak. However, I recommend, if anyone wants to try to address City Council at all (which has been a lost cause for a number of years on many local civil rights and public access issues), they simply divide up a long speech among their group and have each person read two minutes of it.

What Coonerty (as well as Rotkiin and Mathews have done) is to make it clear that City Council is not a place where the public can go to speak to each other and to their public representatives. Considering the profound corruption that now riddles the Congress and other legislative bodies, this isn't surprising.

What it means for the community is that we have to create other ways to express ourselves and make the fundamental changes needed.

Will this Council be remembered as the Council that allowed Mayor Coonerty to require members of the public to beg City Council members before a Consent Agenda item is opened to public discussion? The only city in the state to do this?
Add Your Comments
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Robert Norse
Fri, Jun 10, 2011 10:21AM
The Beast from the East
Tue, Jan 25, 2011 3:42PM
Bruce Holloway
Tue, Jan 25, 2011 12:58PM
Robert Norse
Mon, Jan 24, 2011 10:50PM
Wed, Jan 19, 2011 11:50AM
Wed, Jan 19, 2011 9:11AM
The Beast from the East
Wed, Jan 19, 2011 7:01AM
Wed, Jan 19, 2011 5:50AM
Midsum III
Tue, Jan 18, 2011 8:43PM
Robert Norse
Tue, Jan 18, 2011 7:26PM
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