The Root of City Hall's Gadfly Infestation

LOS ANGELES

@THE GUSS REPORT-Aloof and incompetent government has been mocked by the masses since time immemorial. Outside of elections, it is sometimes the only way to have your dissent heard.

The increasingly antagonistic mockery of LA City Councilmembers at their thrice weekly gatherings has become a slapstick art form which has intensified during the five years that its president Herb Wesson has run the meetings, yet Wesson seems oblivious as ever to what he has done to increase the hostility in his quest to reduce civic participation. Specifically, he has: 

  • Reduced public speaking time from a total five minutes to three for items on the agenda. 
  • Reduced public speaking time from two minutes to one on any single agenda item. 
  • Reduced general public comment (for items not on the agenda) from two minutes to one minute. 
  • Moved general public comment from the beginning of the meeting, to the end of the meeting, back to the beginning and, now, in dribs and drabs, as filler throughout the meeting. 
  • Consistently called for peoples’ speaker cards the moment they step outside of City Council chambers to go to the restroom, declaring their time forfeited. 
  • Interrupted speakers, calling them “off-topic” without giving them a chance to make their point in their own way, including doing this to some whose primary language is not English and some who may be disabled or homeless and do not speak as swiftly as Wesson. 
  • Repeatedly interrupted speakers while their already reduced speaking time ticks off the clock. 
  • Called people to speak on a topic even though the agenda item is not yet ready to be voted on. 
  • Allowed Councilmembers to mill around or even stray away from Council chambers during public debate, and set Council’s voting software default to an “aye” yes vote without paying attention to speakers’ concerns. 
  • Squandered hours at the start of most City Council meetings with breathless, repetitious, fawning ceremony and celebration (which should be moved to a once-per-month weekend event) rather than put the peoples’ business first. 
  • Misplaced speaker cards so that, when the person gets in line to speak, he or she is declared “disruptive” and thrown out of the meeting under threat of arrest. (Then he suddenly locates the cards once speakers have been ejected from the room. 

Just last week, on a day when City Council squandered hours on fluff before getting down to business, Wesson’s sarcastic, Napoleonic back-up, Councilmember Mitch Englander, told a disabled speaker who had an opinion with which he disagreed, “your prescription is now ready.” 

Where was Wesson’s reprimand for that? While Wesson and Englander whine, they give as good as they get. 

The situation is far worse now than during the years Mayor Eric Garcetti served as City Council president, although his interference with free speech resulted in a losing, costly-to-the-taxpayers federal 1st Amendment lawsuit won by David “Zuma Dogg” Saltsburg. As a result, all new elected officials and commissioners who run public meetings are now warned about “The Zuma Dogg Ruling” before they enter the City Hall fray. And Mr. Saltsburg wasn’t the only critic to win a free speech battle in court against City Hall. 

Wesson’s restrictiveness and inability to find common ground is not only arbitrary and retaliatory against the City Hall regulars, it also hurts other people who may come to City Hall only one time in their lives to fight something like an unfair property lien, forcing them to wait hours for a paltry 60-seconds to speak, often without even being heard. 

Last week, Wesson dealt what will eventually become another losing hand for City Hall when he and the other Councilmembers instructed City Attorney Mike Feuer, who has cultivated his own retaliatory reputation, to figure out a way to (mis-)use trespass laws to silence critics.  

In typical Wesson-Englander fashion, they didn’t first hash out the specifics of how and where the legislation will be applied. From City News Service

“Vanessa Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Council President Herb Wesson, said that despite Englander's interpretation, the ordinance would not apply to public meetings.” 

According to Englander, the law will be applied to any city meeting or building where someone is deemed disruptive. He is the last person whose judgement should determine that. A year ago last week, Englander was swatted-down by a judge in his recent campaign for County Supervisor in an attempt to list on the ballot his profession as “police officer” even though he isn’t and never was one. 

Regardless, City Council unanimously approved its motion to suffocate criticism in Nancy Pelosi-fashion -- i.e., voting on it without knowing what’s in it.

While the gadflies love goading Englander into calling phony speaker names such as Mohammed Atta and this gem, to derisive laughter, things weren’t always this bad for Wesson. 

When Wesson first came to the City Council presidency as a skilled career politician who is fairly likable in one-on-one settings, he not only knew virtually everyone in the room, but in many instances, knew where they were headed once they left it. If he saw regulars in Council chambers on a given day, he instinctively knew that they probably wanted to get to another meeting up in the City Hall Tower, so he would reliably call on them early to make their points at City Council and send them on their way. It also helped Wesson get critics away from the Channel 35 cameras broadcasting the meetings sooner.

Now that is good political instinct! 

But over the course of time, Wesson has lost that sense of fairness -- to the detriment of the public and his ever-growling stomach -- whose churning can often be heard over his open City Council microphone. 

If Wesson returned to that more reasonable mindset and started running meetings in a more efficient and fair way, it might not halt the disruptions, but it would be a wise step in a better direction because where it’s headed now, the taxpayers and Wesson are going to lose in the end. And another 1st Amendment win for the gadflies is fuel for the fire.

 

(Daniel Guss, MBA, is a CityWatch contributor, a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has contributed to CityWatch, KFI AM-640, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, Movieline Magazine, Emmy Magazine, Los Angeles Business Journal and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @TheGussReport. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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