“Madam Chair, may I address one of the supervisors?” David Duran asked then-chair Michelle Steel a second time during an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 14, 2017. Steel sighed before looking over to her fellow supervisor, Lisa Bartlett. “You can talk whatever you want, except attacking,” she warned the People’s Homeless Task Force activist.
Duran addressed Steel’s presumption, returned to his prepared remarks on the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment with about 30 seconds left, but ran out of time during public comments to address Bartlett directly. And even if he wanted to be disparaging in remarks, that would’ve been his First Amendment right.
The exchange is just one of many examples that the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California points to in a lawsuit filed this morning alleging that supervisors routinely shield themselves from public criticism by unlawfully limiting free speech. Along with the Kirkland and Ellis law firm, the ACLU’s suit represents the People’s Homeless Task Force and charges that the board’s rules and conduct towards its members violate the Brown Act and the state constitution.
“The single-most important duty of the Board of Supervisors is to listen to their constituents,” Jeanine Robbins, Task Force founding member, tells the Weekly. “They’re very discriminatory in what they want to hear.”
On that latter point, the suit draws attention to the board’s Feb. 8, 2018 revising of its Rules of Procedures that, among other things, pushed general public comments on non-agenda items to the end of its meetings. “This change makes it unreasonably difficult for the public to address the board at all,” the suit reads. “Members of the public face the following dilemma: they may arrive early and wait hours to speak, or they may take a guess as to what time the comments period will begin and risk losing their opportunity to address their elected officials if they guess incorrectly.”
And some just stay home altogether.
According to the suit, the board heard an average of 24 comments per meeting in the six months leading up to the change. Half-a-year after it, that number dropped to less than eight per meeting.
The revamp also formally limits people to addressing “the board as a whole and not to any individual board member,” despite the five-member body being elected by distinct districts. Under another rule, the chair, at their discretion, has the ability to whittle down three-minute public comments per speaker “if the number of persons desiring to speak would prevent the board from accomplishing its business in a reasonably efficient manner.”
How that plays out is another point of contention. During a Nov. 14, 2017 meeting, then-chair Steel cut public comments down to two minutes since 72 speakers signed up. Last January, then-chair Andrew Do did the same during a meeting despite having 20 speakers lined up. Somehow, all of seven speakers prompted Do the shave a minute off public comments at an April 10, 2018 meeting.
And if that ain’t bad enough, free speech appears to be freer for elected officials than the general public, so says the suit. At a March 2018 meeting where the board backtracked on authorizing homeless shelters in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, electeds from various cities enjoyed two minutes of time at the podium while others got restricted to one whole minute for that same agenda item.
Electeds could even speak over their allotted time without reprimand, it’s alleged, while Do scolded a woman who did the same saying, “You are not more important than other speakers. I know you think you are.”
Robbins places much of the blame on Do’s time as chair. She recalls a public forum in Garden Grove where he claimed that housing for homeless people would end in a proliferation of crack houses. “We kept hammering him with that statement at the Board of Supervisors,” she says. “We kept hammering the supervisors to spend their discretionary funds on permanent supportive housing. Then, all of a sudden, they changed the rules for public comment.”
The Task Force first came together with like-minded activists attending Anaheim city council meetings to address homeless issues there. They soon shifted focus to the Board of Supervisors when its all-Republican members at the time never agendized anything on homelessness.
Outside of meetings, the ACLU is also suing on the grounds of California Public Records Act violations, claiming the board capriciously created a subcategory of “transitory records” that can be destroyed immediately, as opposed to being preserved for at least two years. When transitory records aren’t meeting their early fate, the suit also alleges that the board is prohibiting disclosure of other records.
Robbins sought security camera footage in a records request for cases where the board called for a recess, ended a meeting prematurely or cleared chambers out on account of supposedly disruptive behavior from audience members. Another board rule claims such recordings to be confidential. The county refused to fulfill the records request, holding the footage on account of it being law enforcement “intelligence information” and “security procedures.”
The simple resolution to that conflict could come in making the footage available. For the larger complaints about the board meetings in the suit, Robbins hopes for more. “I would expect policy change,” she says. “I would expect that the Board of Supervisors put constituents first.”
And Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu: since you spearheaded similarly-styled changes to public comments for city council meetings, I hope you’re listening!
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!