American Canyon: Resident looks for legal redress after she was silenced at city council meeting

An American Canyon resident is examining her options after the mayor denied her the right to speak during public comment time at the last city council meeting. The mayor claimed the resident was making personal attacks in criticizing the winners in the last election of “childish behavior” on election night. -db

November 30, 2010
By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

AMERICAN CANYON, Calif. — Marianne Young says she’s exploring legal options after being shut down by the mayor during the public comment portion of the last City Council meeting.

She may have a case, if Mayor Leon Garcia’s response was illegal, as a First Amendment expert said it might have been.

“I’m looking into my options and, if it isn’t legal, I’m going to go after him,” Young said.

City Manager Rich Ramirez said Monday, however, that the issue is overblown and city officials have already moved on.

“We have put the matter behind us,” Ramirez said. “We are pressing on with city business and the dais continues to be available to people to speak within the confines of the City Council’s governance protocol as interpreted by the mayor.”

First Amendment expert Terry Francke said the Brown Act gives city councils the authority to adopt procedural rules governing the process, and “to set reasonable time limits on each speaker, on each topic, or on some combination of those categories.” He also said the rules must be applied evenly “and not just because one doesn’t like what’s being said.”

A frequent meeting attendee, Young said she’d prepared a short speech chastising the local winners of the recent elections for “childish behavior” on election night.

“I was going to tell them it’s not acceptable to get in a limo and drive to (defeated councilman) Ed West’s house and (defeated councilman) Don Callison was there, too, and shout taunts at them,” Young said. “When (Garcia) gaveled me, I got flustered. I didn’t know what it meant. I’ve never seen it happen before. I left.”

When Young brought up the election night incident, Garcia stopped her, saying he wasn’t going to allow “personal attacks.”

But Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, The Center for Public Forum Rights, said he may not have had the legal right to do that.

“Local government bodies are prohibited by both the Brown Act and the First Amendment from (gagging the public) from expressing criticism of the behavior of city council members at city council meetings,” Francke said. “There is no ‘personal attacks’ exception to free speech in such circumstances.”

Garcia said “our city attorney has a different perspective on it.”

“I didn’t prevent her from speaking, I just said I wasn’t going to allow personal attacks,” Garcia said. “We continue to conduct our business with respect, courtesy and decorum for the public.”

City Attorney William Ross said protocol was followed during the incident.

“We have reasonable rules and they have to be followed,” Ross said. A council member or Young would have had to object to the gaveling for Ross to step in, he said.

“If an issue is raised, I resolve it,” he said.

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