The United States of America is awesomely a country of, by and for the people. While corporations, lobbyists and politicians hold great power, so do we as individual citizens. I am a huge fan of people participating in democracy, open government and freedom of speech.
Temecula Mayor Mike Naggar likes to go by the book – one that he writes as he goes along. If Naggar read a book like he runs a city council meeting, he might start at chapter one, move to chapter 7 and push some of the beginning chapters to the end of the book.
An example of Naggar's preferential approach in taking command and control of a meeting is provided in this YouTube video compilation http://youtu.be/wDzFziiN8PY I assembled from the Temecula City Council meeting of 8/27/13.
Mayor Naggar strictly enforces the meeting rules he reads -- and then breaks the rules according to his own bias. In the video, Naggar reads the rules before Public Comments. As I approach the podium as the second public speaker, Mayor Naggar instructs high school students in attendance that the council does not have dialogue with members of the public, but several speakers later, four of the five council members have a 3.5-minute dialogue with a resident concerned about her water billing cycle.
On its face, it seems commendable that the city council takes an interest in the concerns of a constituent, but the council is selective in what dialogue they will have and with whom. The Ralph M. Brown Act open meeting law provides for minimal discussion during public comments for the purpose of directing a constituent to meet with a member of the council, the city manager or other staff person, but technically it is a violation to hold an impromptu hearing and direct action on an issue not itemized on the meeting agenda in advance.
Temecula meeting rules provide 30 minutes for public comment and each speaker has three minutes to speak. There was only one speaker for public comment left after the mayor and council had the 3.5-minute dialogue regarding the water bill issue. Mayor Naggar decided to bifurcate the Public Comment portion of the meeting and made the final speaker wait until the end of the meeting, rather than providing three minutes of flexibility for one last public comment.
The mayor also decided to move the Consent Calendar to the end of the meeting, except for one item of apparent importance to Mayor Naggar that he kept at the beginning of the meeting. In the video, I question Naggar's jumbling of the meeting agenda.
Meeting rules were not made to be broken by Mayor Naggar or any other official running a meeting in California. Citizens have a right to expect a certain amount of uniformity, consistency and fairness in the conduct of a public meeting. Open meeting rules are meaningless in Temecula and there is no pathway to enforcement.
The county District Attorney is supposed to be responsible for enforcement of open meeting laws, but I have never heard of a Brown Act complaint filed with that office being acted upon. Temecula's city attorney will not redirect the mayor or council when they start going afield of open meeting law. A useful resource on the Brown Act and open meeting law can be found here: http://firstamendmentcoalition.org/open-meetings-3/facs-brown-act-primer/.
According to information available from the First Amendment Coalition, In order to restrict speech in a public forum or limited public forum, reasonable time, place and manner regulations are permissible, but restrictions must be “content neutral” (as opposed to “content based”) and narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and must allow ample alternative channels of communication. Perry Educ. Ass’n, 460 U.S. At 45.
I contend that it is unreasonable to make one remaining speaker wait until the end of the meeting rather than extending time for Public Comments by a few minutes – especially considering it was council dialogue that took up the time allotted for the final public speaker.
The opinion offered from www.FirstAmendmentCoalition.org states: This language has been construed to mean that for each agenda of a regular meeting, there must be a period of time provided for general public comment on any matter within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body, as well as an opportunity for public comment on each specific agenda item as it is taken up by the body. (Galbiso v. Orosi Public Utility District (2008) 167 Cal. App. 4th 1063, 1079) In accord is Chaffee v. San Francisco Library Com., supra, 115 Cal. App. 4th 461, 469, which held that the Brown Act “mandated that a single general public comment period be provided per agenda, in addition to public comment on each agenda item as it is taken up by the body.” Mayor Naggar and the city attorney disregard these findings that I provided at the city council meeting of 5/14/13.
As citizens, we are expected follow the rules and laws of society, and everyone is supposed to be treated equally under the law. But what happens when officials write their own rules and there is no enforcement to hold our representatives accountable to we, the people? When offices of government fail us, journalism – the Fourth Estate – is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The Fourth Estate is AWOL.
Riverside County is ruled like an empire where politicians lord over the people, but elected representatives are not rulers, cities are not fiefdoms, and the county is not a kingdom. The California Constitution and Ralph M. Brown Act make it clear: “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.”
But for all the talk of people wanting to “take back their government,” the reality is people cannot easily take back that which they have neglected as they seldom express any interest or responsibility in the public process.
Unfortunately, Henry (“H.L.”) Mencken was probably closer to the truth in his conclusion that "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."