Decorum coercion in City Hall


"You have to have rules of decorum," Murphy said. "This does zero to affect the content."
Councilman Michael Belluomini said he was comfortable with leaving the misdemeanor penalty in the ordinance given that it's a "fairly high standard." -- Miller, Merced Sun-Star, March 6, 2018



Members of the public who depend on and defend the public's right to open meetings of their local governments are always fascinated by the prodigious creativity of officials who believe, as a matter of the deepest personal faith, that government is all about them and not about the public at all.


This year's official hyprocrisy is: Civility and Decorum.

We watch Merced City Council meetings. We noticed several years ago that the speaker's podium was moved from a position shoulder-to-shoulder with the council's dias to the intimidating pit at the foot of the dias, under the council's feet, so to speak. It was just petty harassment of the public but that's how open meetings slowly close.
We observe the composition of the present council, the first one elected by districts, and we note that city staff has worked them like spring bull calves and they are all good little councilpersons now. The strong city-manager system enforces a level of conformity on elected council members
There has been contention this year. The comic spectre of career petty criminal horticulturalists until January 1, and their unctuous yet threatening consultants trying to shed their outlaw ways and speak like citizens to elected politicians in a room containing police has at times brought the mores of the pot patch to City Hall.  Most of the speakers were unused to the public glare, but they handled it. And they were mostly right about the council  knowing bleep-all about the marijuana trade. Yet, paradoxically, planning staff showed a high degree common sense and professionalism crafting the city marijuana ordinance.
There is also the pool of youth in a moreorless permanent state of fumbling political insurrection, depending on the availability of grant funds. They speak a sort of activist slang they've picked up from their senior organizers.
Then there are people who show up from time to time to defend the rights of the many undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico, in the city and county of Merced. They have even suggested -- unsuccessfuly -- that our local governments declare themselves "sanctuary" jurisdictions. This is always an engaging topic frequently provoking more heat than light from the podium or the council dias.
There is also the homeless issue and for several years a representative of the homeless, Monica Villa, spoke at nearly every meeting, at time quite critically of the police and council policies.
There is the issue of the Applegate Park rose garden which involves conflict between  local garden-club representatives who can barely choke down their rage at the municipal mis-, mal-, and nonfeasance visited on the alleged rose garden, and the totally unflappable public works director, who is capable of marvelous acts of political self defense, but he's no Capability Brown.2.
Finally, there are the UC Merced students, who can say almost anything to the council in the most annoying professorial tones and still be treated like darling little golden geese.
But, our city council has now had enough of pungent native utterance and it has discovered the  New Way, the Now Way, the Golden Path of CIVILITY from Washington DC think tanks all the way down to us: the New Word is DECORUM, the window-dressing aspect of CIVILITY, and many, if not most of the people at which this new restriction on public comment aims, don't know precisely what it means and couldn't spell it. However, they rightly intuit that it is the next step after 3-minute public statements were imposed on all but a very few (paid consultants proposing projects pleasing to the city staff) in coercion against public speech.
It's a fancy pants word, a tea party, churchy word, and smacks of the 1950s or the 19th century. It coerces people with a political motive for speaking to the council and no experience or training in doing so, to edit themselves quit possibly past the point of coherence. Certainly we know that it takes much longer to speak in roundabout locutions of politeness before getting to the point that to come to the point with details to back your argument in three minutes.
It was perfectly predictable that the authoritarian for the Right, Murphy, and the one from the Left, Belluomini, would agree on supporting the ordinance. It outrages their very sense of decency that members of the public do not always speak to them in most ingratiating tones and grovel obsequiously to gain favor. After all, even the mayor is paid almost nothing for his onerous public task (for which he campaigned with a great deal of money and evident ambition for a political career in higher offices). Belluomini appears to be a man frequently intoxicated on his own opinions. As middle class professional white men they don't tolerate indefinitely what they consider indecorous behavior from the public, and in Merced the public is sometimes a little shabby, not always grammatical, blunt rather than courtly, or sometimes well-dressed, educated, articulate lawyers arguing against some city policy or council decision.
Lydia Miller, president of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center in Merced commented to Badlands about the Decorum Ordinance: "The public has a right to get up and speak, possibly at the wrong time, getting emotional, having not enough facts or too many, even speaking threateningly as we occasionally here -- 'You guys better do something!'
"If you can't allow the public to get up and express its concerns, you have no business being in public office. The same goes for staff," she added.
"Is a dress code coming next?
"The public should be allowed its turn. Your job is to listen to the public, not just the special interests in the backrooms, she said,
"And Serratto and Blake need to be separated because they keep whispering and making fun of Martinez in front of the public," Miller said.
We would like to remind the council and the city manager of the preamble to the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs public access to local government:

The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” Gov’t Code § 54950.

Our personal experience as members of the public trying to get that access to city and county government and having been refused by indecorous, uncivil local government staff, who have repeatedly lied, cheated, concealed documents and slandered members of the public requesting information and the right to speak publicly. We have filed and won several Brown Act lawsuits.
One of our favorite slanders was a Merced County respondent's brief in Superior Court, which accused the petitioners of "Stalinist tactics." "Socialists, "reds," "radicals," etc. were all words used from the dias of the county and several cities to describe members of the public speaking or trying to speak on behalf of the environment and endangered and threatened species. In the local government lobbies, you could hear "commie enviros" and worse. But once in an elevator in the County building, after an epic public hearing over the long con known as Riverside Motorsports Park, an elderly farmer said, "All we have is the Raptors to save us now."
So, are our little martinets of Left and Right, each holding a side of the banner of CIVILITY and DECORUM, leading the council down our Main Street as the city staff and developers in the backroom prepare for another spurt of growth and environmental destruction and violation of the laws and regulations of public process and the environment?


-- blj


Merced Sun-Star
Merced wants new public speech rules. You break them, it's a misdemeanor
Thaddeus Miller


Merced City Council recommended new decorum rules for council meetings this week that leaders say will protect speech, but detractors say are a roadblock to public input.


The new ordinance, if approved, would make it a misdemeanor to break the rules, which outlaw interrupting a speaker and continuing to speak past your allotted time, among other disruptions. The decorum rules recommendation passed with a 4-2 vote.

Councilmen Anthony Martinez and Matthew Serratto cast the "no" votes, both saying that the misdemeanor label seemed harsh.
A number of Merced residents spoke out against the decorum rules, saying speaking at a meeting is already intimidating enough.
"When residents come up here to talk, a lot of them come with a lot of fear," Merced resident Isai Palma said while at the podium. "They're very timid. They don't know whether they're going to be heard, and now they have to worry about whether or not they're going to get in trouble."
The council has its own decorum policy, and the proposed policy was meant to maintain decorum among residents speaking publicly as well as with the members of the audience, according to Mayor Mike Murphy.
The "most vulnerable" citizens are at risk of unintentionally violating the rules, according to Michael Claiborne, an attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that advocates for historically excluded communities.
"I think that if there's an issue with decorum and making sure City Council meetings are orderly and they move forward, we can address that in ways that aren't going to chill speech. That aren't going to make members of the public afraid to come before this council because they're facing misdemeanor penalties," he said.
People who don't speak fluent English or those who are undocumented already face enough barriers to speaking at a public meeting, he said. "Don't criminalize free speech," he said.
Another resident, Sol Rivas, called the decorum rules an "appalling" and "degrading" policy that would affect free speech. The council should be looking for ways to make residents feel more welcome in the chambers, she said.
Murphy pushed back against the idea that the policy targets free speech, saying it does just the opposite. "It's really to protect the person who's at the podium," he said. "If we have distractions that are happening in the audience, the person at the podium isn't able to get their message across."
"You have to have rules of decorum," Murphy said. "This does zero to affect the content."
Councilman Michael Belluomini said he was comfortable with leaving the misdemeanor penalty in the ordinance given that it's a "fairly high standard."
The ordinance is enforceable if a meeting "is willfully interrupted by a person or group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of the meeting impossible," according to the ordinance.
Serratto, a supervising deputy district attorney for Merced County, said the penalty was too high. For example, a DUI, assault and domestic violence are all misdemeanors.
"Misdemeanors are punishable by six months in jail," he said. "To me that seems a little (harsh)."
*This story was corrected from an earlier version.






Interruptions and rules for conduct.
Understanding that the purpose of the city council meetings is to conduct the people's business for the benefit of all the people, in the event that any meeting of the city council is willfully interrupted by a person or group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of the meeting impossible, the mayor, mayor pro tem, or any other member of the city council acting as the chair may order the removal of the person or persons responsible for the disruption and bar them from further attendance at the council meeting, or otherwise proceed pursuant to Government Code Section 54957.9 or any applicable penal statute or city ordinance.
For purposes of this chapter, unless otherwise apparent from the context, certain words or phrases used in this chapter are defined as follows: "Willfully interrupt" includes, but is not limited to, doing any of the following after being directed by the chair to cease and being warned that continuing to do so will be a violation of law:
       A. Addressing the city council without first being recognized;
       B. Persisting in addressing a subject or subjects other than that or those before the city council;
       C. Repetitiously addressing the same subject;
       D. Continuing to speak after the allotted time has expired;
       E. Failing to relinquish the podium when directed to do so;
       F. Failing to sit down when directed to do so;
       G. As a speaker, interrupting or attempting to interrupt members of the city council or members of the city staff;
       H. From the audience: (1) interrupting or attempting to interrupt a speaker, members of the city council, or members of the city staff, (2) shouting or attempting to shout over a speaker, members of the city council, or members of the city staff, or (3) displays such as clapping, stamping, loud talking, hissing and booing.
City council rules for conduct.
       A. The city council may establish rules for the conduct of its proceedings by resolution or an action of the city council in accordance with state law.
       B. Nothing in this chapter or any rules of conduct that may be adopted by the city council shall be construed to prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the city, or of the acts or omissions of the city council or city staff.
Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
(2) Capability Brown - Wikipedia
Lancelot Brown more commonly known with the byname Capability Brown, was an English landscape architect. He is remembered as "the last of the great English 18th century artists to be accorded his due" and "England's greatest gardener"...