Cable broadcasts of Compton City Council meetings to omit public comments

The Compton City Council has taken several steps regarding citizen participation in council meetings including removing public comments from local cable coverage of the meetings. -db

Los Angeles Wave
September 22, 2010
By Leiloni De Gruy

COMPTON, Calif. — Seen by some residents as another attempt to silence their voices, the city council voted 3-1 to remove the public comment segment from its local cable telecasts.

The Sept. 14 move followed a “minute motion” on the Sept. 7 agenda. There was no staff report to address why such an action was considered or taken.

However Mayor Eric Perrodin and council members Lillie Dobson and Barbara Calhoun saw fit in removing what they have called in past meetings “slanderous” and “vicious” statements that prevent them from conducting city business. Councilman Willie Jones was the lone dissenting vote and Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux was absent.

In addition, the city clerk’s office is no longer selling videotaped copies of the council meetings, which had cost members of the public about $20. A representative of the clerk’s office stated that the policy began at the beginning of this month but could not provide a reason behind it.

But some residents, interviewed last week outside the Compton Superior Court, harbored suspicions about the council’s intent.

Guillermo Rodriguez said he “didn’t think this would happen, but in a way I saw it coming,” referring to residents’ being unable to watch a month’s worth of heated council meetings after the city failed to renew its contract with the cable provider. He also pointed to last year’s changes to the rules of decorum in the council chambers, which limit public speaking time and restrict certain outbursts or gestures.

“It’s not right, they are violating people’s rights and trying to silence us,” added Rodriguez. “They are trying to keep the community from knowing what’s really going on.”

Shameeka Thomlinson does not “think they should take [the public comments] out,” she said. “They are only saying what they see happening in the city. We need to know because the city isn’t going to tell us. And a lot of us look for that [in the telecasts] because we can’t make it to the meetings. … Something is wrong here. They must be trying to hide something.”

It was in September 2009 that the city council voted to change the rules of conduct that govern citizen participation during council meetings.

According to the ordinance, “each person who addresses the Council shall do so in an orderly manner and shall not make personal, impertinent, slanderous or profane remarks to any member of the Council, staff or general public.” In addition, “no person in the audience at a Council meeting shall engage in disorderly or boisterous conduct, including the utterance of loud, threatening or abusive language, whistling, [or] stamping of feet…”

Each person must also address their comments to the Council as a whole and cannot single out any member unless in response to a question from that particular member.

Violators are to first be given a verbal warning, after which the person will be asked to leave for the duration of the meeting. If the person does not remove him or herself, any Council member holds the right to have them removed by force by law enforcement. A person resisting removal may be charged and found guilty of a misdemeanor.

Beyond the rules of decorum, audience members no longer have three minutes to comment per item on the agenda. Instead, they have a total of five minutes to address any and all items on the agenda, as well as non-agenda matters, in the early part of the meeting; that is before the items are brought up and considered by the Council. During public hearings, persons commenting are limited to two minutes.

Since its implementation, at least three speakers have either been threatened with removal or removed from council chambers and barred from the following meeting.

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  • i wanted to post a story The Bulletin wrote about this issue, as there are a couple of minor factual errors in the story that appeared in The Wave article.

    Public comments to be edited out of meeting broadcasts
    City’s inexplicable action cited by some as further encroachment of citizens’ rights
    By Allison Jean Eaton
    Bulletin Editor

    COMPTON—Residents are still fuming after the City Council voted last week to prevent viewers who watch council meetings on television from hearing comments made by audience members.

    The Tuesday, Sept. 7, agenda item was identified as a “minute motion” on the agenda, and there is no staff report or supporting documentation in the Sept. 7 agenda packet explaining the need to effectively censor Channel 36’s meeting broadcasts.

    The item was approved in a split 3-1 vote, with Councilman Dr. Willie O. Jones being the lone dissenter. Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux was absent.

    Listed on the agenda as “Action: A request that the public comment section be excluded from Channel 36 coverage,” there was no discussion on how public comments will be cut from the live telecast or during replays throughout the week.

    The local government access station could simply go silent or overdub the sound with music during the live telecast and subsequent replays. That portion of the meeting could also simply be blacked out or edited out altogether.

    Jones was the only official to even question the item.

    “Public comment and public dissent is very important,” Jones said. “The Council has established rules of decorum, and we have also limited public speech” by ceasing to allow speakers to address the council on agenda items as they are considered, a new rule that popped up last year.

    “I’m having some difficulty understanding why we need this item,” he continued. “I don’t think there’s a compelling need.”

    Councilwoman Barbara Calhoun, who supported the item, pointed out that speakers would still be able to address the Council, meaning the city would still be fulfilling its legal obligation.

    The roll call for the vote instantly elicited anger from several audience members, who jumped from their seats and heckled Calhoun for supporting a policy that they said dances around the law to effectively curtail their rights.

    “You’re gone, Calhoun!” yelled out Lynn Boone, a resident, city employee and Council critic.

    Calhoun is up for re-election next year, and last week’s vote coupled with her vote to relaunch a local police department has many voters set on ousting her from the dais.

    Residents Joyce Kelly, William Kemp and Roudolfo Ruval also sprang up and voiced disgust aimed toward the councilwoman as they individually exited the Council Chambers with security officers at their heels.

    Kelly believes Mayor Eric J. Perrodin is behind the policy. She said that because the deputy district attorney knows he cannot prevent his critics from speaking about issues he does not want the public to be aware of or from criticizing him and other officials, this is his way of effectively silencing them.

    But it appears to be legal. The Brown Act does not address the editing of meeting recordings. First Amendment experts said that because the policy affects all speakers rather than singling anyone out, it appears to be legal.

    Legal or not, many residents said they have a big problem with what they perceive to be censorship.

    “You’ve done everything you can to skirt the Brown Act,” Kelly said during her public comments last Tuesday — the last comments made by her or anyone else that television viewers will hear when watching Compton City Council meetings.

    Benjamin Holifield, a resident who attended a protest outside of City Hall prior to last week’s meeting, said that the new policy is a prime example of why “they (council members) should be put out and recalled.”

    “They’re keeping the public from being seen and being heard, and that’s unacceptable,” Holifield said. “I believe it’s time for a change.”

    Public policy experts are also troubled by the Council’s action, which a number of other Southland cities have contemplated but quickly abandoned when their outraged constituencies reacted. Only one city countywide is known to edit TV broadcasts of public meetings.

    Norwalk has since 2004 blacked out public comments from its council and planning commission meeting broadcasts. Gadflies in that city told the Los Angeles Times in February that the blackout was instated after one of them criticized a councilman’s use of a city credit card on a trip to Palm Springs.

    Former Santa Clara Mayor Judy Nadler, a senior fellow of government ethics at the Markula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, thought it was a joke when she was informed of the Norwalk blackouts.

    “The idea of cutting off the public from access to what fellow citizens have on their mind is troubling,” she told the Times. “There’s no excuse for that.”

    It is the latest in a series of actions the Council has taken to curtail the public’s speech during meetings.

    Before last fall, meeting attendees could speak on agenda items as the Council addressed them, as well as during the public comment period held at the end of the meeting prior to council members’ comments.

    Public speakers have since last September been restricted from addressing the Council on specific agenda items while they are considered. Public comments were moved to the beginning of the agenda and increased to five minutes. Officials said the changes boost efficiency.

    Boone, Kelly and Kemp each told The Bulletin in separate interviews last year that they believe those changes targeted them because they take the Council to task and share information that is not included in the staff reports for some agenda items. They believe the ban on speaking on individual items as the Council discusses them is a Brown Act violation.

    California Government Code Section 54954.3(a) states that “every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”

    According to the California First Amendment Coalition, the act’s wording suggests comment should be allowed before as well as during each individual item. But the coalition also notes on its website,, that a single comment period at the beginning of a meeting could conceivably satisfy the provision.

    A six-year-old appellate court decision, however, suggests both should be provided.

    “When the Brown Act and the Sunshine Ordinance (a law specific to the city of San Francisco) are read in their entirety, we conclude that the lawmaking bodies clearly contemplated circumstances in which continuances and multiple sessions of meetings to consider a published agenda would be required, and thus they mandated that a single general public comment period be provide per agenda, in addition to public comment on each agenda item as it is taken up by the body.”

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