Santa Cruz Indymedia :
Santa Cruz Indymedia

Critiqueing the Sentinel's Story on My Arrest

It's unrealistic to expect the Sentinel to present balanced, fair, or insightful coverage of the Santa Cruz City Council.

Many of the important and relevant aspects of what happened June 14th can be found in my Brown Act demand letter above: including the discriminatory and unconstitutional 5-minute rule, Lt. Clark's violent arrest, and the Council's history of hostility towards public comment by critics.

Still, it's useful to understand that the article is blatantly biased, profoundly incomplete, and appallingly superficial. Indymedia readers may remember the Sentinel was the subject of a picket some days back. Here are some specifics of why I didn't like the Sentinel article.

First McCord's article is nine days late. So a violent assault done prior to announcing a Council critic was under arrest with cameras explicitly turned away and microphones intentionally turned off by order of the City Council didn't merit a peep for over a week.
McCord was a close witness to this arrest and confided that she was “shocked� and did indeed hear me repeatedly ask if I were under arrest. She did hear me offer to leave the chambers if and when I was put under arrest. She did hear me ask for the charges. Lt. Clark's response, which she saw, was a grim silence and simultaneous pain-hold to force me out of the chambers. Once I was informed I was under arrest I left voluntarily. Nowhere does this appear in the story. McCord doesn't seem concerned with such niceties, nor mention Clark's name. (Why antagonize the police department?)
Though she was a close witness to the arrest, McCord doesn't get to violence of the arrest until the 12th paragraph down and then dismisses it, “During the meeting, a police officer pulled Norse’s hand behind his back and put him in handcuffs while Norse repeatedly yelled, "Am I under arrest?" She was a witness to my telling Clark I would leave if told I were under arrest. Clark's response, which she witnessed, was increased violence, forcing me to scream, all prior to any announcement that I was under arrest. None of this, however, makes it into the story.
My report of Clark's outrageous threatening behavior repeatedly while I was in handcuffs, his verbal threats, his denunciation of me for adding his name to the ongoing lawsuit (also not mentioned), his compounding the earlier pain compliance hold so that my shorts fell down to my ankles leaving me naked as a jaybird, his seizure of my tape recording and smirking comment “your tape was blank, Robert�, and his final warning “if I have to take you out of City Council again, I'll not be so gentle�. All these facts were reported to McCord, but she made no attempt to follow up on any of them apparently.
My report of Clark's outrageous threatening behavior repeatedly while I was in handcuffs, his verbal threats, his denunciation of me for adding his name to the ongoing lawsuit (also not mentioned), his compounding the earlier pain compliance hold so that my shorts fell down to my ankles leaving me naked as a jaybird, his seizure of my tape recording and smirking comment “your tape was blank, Robert�, and his final warning “if I have to take you out of City Council again, I'll not be so gentle�. All these facts were reported to McCord, but she made no attempt to follow up on any of them apparently. Even Clark's name doesn't appear.

The Sentinel story headline on page one reads “Filibuster: City Council's New Limit on Public Comment Put to the Test�. The headline over the story on page two reads “Speaker pushes Council's limits.� This makes me appear to be an aggressor against some reasonable established policy or even someone who is making long speeches, doing a local “filibuster�. In fact it is City Council members and City Manager Dick Wilson's staff that take up the overwhelming majority of the Council time and speak on without check. I get two, sometimes three minutes. Sometimes when I insist on the right to use them, I end up in handcuffs.
For the Santa Cruz City Council, on the other hand, filibustering the public is a way of life. First staff and then Councilmembers go on and on for long periods of time (For a laugh look at De Cinzo's cartoon lampooning Mike Rotkin's endless Council talk in the Metro Santa Cruz this week). Rotkin then have the gall to suggest that members of the public using the tiny increments of time given to them are “abusive�. This subjective judgment is the Mayor's justification for punishing the community as a whole and cutting back everyone's time.
The U.S. Senate has a filibuster rule, which allows a few Senators to talk endlessly for hours to stall legislation or judicial appointments unless blocked by 60% of the Senate. In practice this can allow a Senator or a tag team of Senators to speak for many hours on a single item. I have never spoken for more than five minutes (and only then when representing a group), generally no more than three minutes, and frequently for far less time (as mayors shorten time to shut me and other critics down).
Ironically, it is not City Council—which goes on for hours with no time limits on its discussion—that is being referred to in this headline, but me—one speaker trying to speak for two minutes on one item. Rather than allow this, Council chooses to stop its meeting, turn off the cameras, and then order an arrest and cast a blind eye to police violence in front of their eyes. McCord does likewise.

While reporter McCord, who regularly attends Council meetings, is not responsible for the headlines put on her stories or the editing done, she does seem to rather clear take sides. Three paragraphs into her story, she refers to “the antics of a few who regularly eat up time by commenting on numerous items, often not pertaining to the issue at hand.� One, she's taking sides and asserting the case for Rotkin's repressive rules, but presenting no evidence other than Rotkin and Porter's opinion. She has sat through many Council meetings, but gives no example of where I spoke off-topic and engaged in “antics that ate up time�.

While McCord concludes the article by saying I was arrested in the past for disrupting meetings, she doesn't mention that the “disrupting a meeting� charges of those previous arrests never made it to court. She doesn't mention that City Council is, in fact, being sued in federal court for damages for the 2002 false arrest and for a continuing pattern and practice of harassment at City Council.
She doesn't mention that Lt. Clark several months ago was added to the 2002 false arrest lawsuit (also for “disrupting a meeting�) and that I reported to her that he threateningly denounced me for that lawsuit as he was unnecessarily putting me in pain outside City Council chambers in a continuing pain compliance procedure. Nor does she mention my account that Clark ended my stay in handcuffs at the police station by saying to me “if you ever refuse to leave City Council again, I will not be so gentle.�

I've gone into detail in postings above about what sections of the Brown Act Rotkin violated. The article mentions the Brown Act once in passing.

The reporter quotes Rotkin's false claim that I took 40 minutes commenting on several agenda items at “a March meeting.� On March 8, I pulled three items from the Consent Agenda and was given five minutes to speak on all three combined. I then spoke on two other items (not on the Consent Agenda) for the afternoon: for a grand total of 11 minutes. I didn't speak at all at the second March Council meeting. I spoke on no items at all at the February 22 Council meeting. At the February 8 Council meeting, I did speak on seven Consent agenda items—this was in the midst of the Coast Santa Cruz Hotel snow job. On no item was I the only one who spoke. My testimony was relevant and prompted Council debate. Even there the amount of time was probably no more than fifteen minutes.
No comparison was made between the time taken by my testimony and the public testimony generally and the much greater amount of time consumed by the staff and City Council. If the Council had a real concern about time and not about the content of criticism from the public, it would consider limiting itself and staff presentations. Reporter McCord has done no research into the amount of time City Council takes compared with what the public takes.

Also absent from McCord's account are some gloomy realities of “progressive� City government that provide an important background to understand the Council's passion for muzzling the public. There is no Council procedure for putting items from the public on the agenda, no meaningful committee or commission process where public input can be meaningfully discussed and made a part of legislation, and no meaningful oversight bodies that keep track of the Redevelopment Agency, the City Attorney, the Police Chief, or the City Attorney. Instead the staff runs City Council, which pretty much rubberstamps a preset agenda (the Brown Act notwithstanding).
When the public slows this down or raises embarrassing questions, the Mayor often dismissed or vilifies critics and moves to shut them down. That's what the current 5-minute Consent Agenda limit rule and the allied 3-and-1 Administrative Agenda limit (three minutes for the first item, and only one for each successive item) is all about.
The point is that the Council not only doesn't want to hear from the public, but takes active punitive measures to cut back public speaking time for those it particularly dislikes. I am one of those people.

While McCord passes on my assertions that the new Council 5-minute rule violates the First Amendment and the Brown Act, she doesn't make the common sense translation: It is simply unreasonable for members of the public to be expected to preplan and pre-time all their comments on every item on the consent agenda in advance, pack them into a five minutes speaking period, and then agree to muzzle themselves for any and all items that come up beyond that five minute speaking limit. The Brown Act guarantees public comment on each item, not just on the first few. The Council can limit time on any particular item, but it can't cut time down to zero on any particular item, using the pretext that they gave the public more time on another item.
No City in California that I am aware of uses the 5-minute rule. City council rules in San Rafael, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto, Monterey, and other coastal towns state that public comment shall be allowed on each and every item.
The key issue around the 5- minute rule is whether it's reasonable and lawful to expect members of the public to be able to select every item they intend to speak on before the Council meeting begins, plan and time their comments so that as a total they don't exceed five minutes—even if they wish to speak on multiple items. Is it lawful to prevent a member of the public from speaking at all, if suddenly the debate on an item that they'd not anticipated makes them realize they have something to contribute? This not only denies the public and the Council the benefit of their testimony, but it denies them the right to speak on every item—which they have under the Brown Act. This issue is nowhere clarified in McCord's article but is really central.

Have I been abusive at City Council in my commentary on past items? McCord is often at Council and probably has some sense of whether my commentary is “abusive�, “trouble-making�, or “inordinate�. She choses to accept Rotkin's characterizations (“curtail the antics of a few�). She sought no one's opinion other than Rotkin and Porter's. No interviews with Terry Franke of the First Amendment Coalition. She did not examine past Council minutes to see if Rotkin or past Mayor's had frequently ruled me “out of order� for making irrelevant comments (they haven't).
Does McCord look into the factual background? No. An examination of the minutes of past Council meetings will show that I am rarely warned for speaking “off-topic�--which means using Council time to promulgate your own irrelevant message. There is no evidence that I do this. McCord however repeats Rotkin and Porter's self-serving and defamatory accusations without any analysis or statements from anyone else.
Finally McCord might have gone to the Council records and timed how long Council members spoke, and how little time the public actually had.

In November 2002 at a joint committee meeting of the Downtown Commission and a City Council subcommittee, Porter ordered me to turn off my tape recorder (which had been on and visible for fifteen minutes previously). I was reporting for Free Radio Santa Cruz on the latest developments in Porter's “play music near a building with an open guitar case, pay a fine� law expansion. I refused; Porter called the police and had me arrested for “trespass� at City Hall. Naturally charges disappeared quickly. But the public was denied a record of what happened at that meeting.
Porter has repeatedly refused to return phone calls and declined a Public Records Act request for his e-mail traffic around the issue of the homeless Sleeping Ban even though access to such information is a public entitlement under state law.
Rotkin has repeatedly refused to comply with last November's Sunshine Initiative which requires mayors and other legislators to reveal their calendars and appointment books to the public. He has insisted that revealing where he as Mayor will be publicly meeting is confidential information which he cannot give me or I will “disrupt� his meetings. He also has declined to provide his e-mail traffic and apparently, along with other Council members seeks to circumvent state law by routing it through his personal computer rather than city council offices.
These are a very few of the very real abuses we have gotten from Rotkin and Porter, but nowhere have they ever appeared in the Sentinel. Apparently McCord isn't about to start now.

Council members can refute, mock, and vilify members of the public at length—without providing them any right of reply. But when a member of the public directs a critical comment to a City Council member specifically (or—it sometimes happens—even mentions a Councilmember by name), they can be interrupted and chastised.
The Mayor and City Council extend time when they are hearing from a favored speaker. But freedom of speech and the opportunity to use it isn't for those the Council wants to hear from—they don't need it. It is rather those the Council would prefer not to hear from, that need the protection.
The real issue behind the 5-minute-rule is speedier passage of the Consent Agenda that the Council staff thinks doesn't deserve any kind of public discussion (or perhaps won't bear public scrutiny?). Hence the new time limits.

It is true that the rule change that requires the public to condense all their comments on all consent agenda items into a grand total of five minutes on all items (often as many as 25) means a very reduced public speaking time and less motivation for the public to speak.
Rotkin's discussion at the meeting that passed the five-minute rule (March 22, 2005) as well as his remarks in the Sentinel suggested it was created primarily for me.
McCord might have shown the public the discriminatory origin of the new rule: Even before Rotkin had put his 5-minute rule to a Council vote, he created out of thin air on March 8th, and required me to make all my comments on all three Consent agenda items I'd pulled in a bundle before anyone else had spoken. (I was unable to do so, since I'd prepared to speak for three minutes on each.).

Previous Mayors used a variety of earlier devices to stop me from speaking—even for the paltry two or three minutes they grudgingly allowed. These included interrupting, placing items on which I wished to speak hours later at the end of the afternoon (and sometimes the evening agenda), arbitrarily ruling that an agenda item was “not open for public discussion�, shortening public comment time particularly for me, and denouncing me as a “racist� and leading a walkout of Council members while I was speaking and then refusing to restore my time to speak when they returned, heavy visible police presence, threats of arrest, turning off the microphone, having a police officer quietly threaten that making a presentation at the microphone will result in arrest, and other similar tactics.

McCord mentions my prior arrests at City Council (March 2002, January 2004), leaving the impression that I am irresponsible and unlawful in my behavior. In fact, as she well knew, I was not charged, much less tried and convicted, but only “citizen-arrested� by the Mayor. The charge was “disrupting a meeting� in each case—a disappearing charge which never made it to court. The charge, however served its purpose: I was denied my right to be at the meeting, denied my speaking time, and hauled off to jail.
In the first arrest, Sgt. Loran Baker refused my demand that he make a citizen arrest of the Mayor for making a false police report in claiming that I had disrupted a meeting (the issue was the silent mock-Nazi salute from the side of the room); this would have documented the spurious nature of that arrest. A Mayor may citizen-arrest a critic for an imaginary 'disruption' to haul the critic away; but a critic cannot get the Mayor cited for the very real crime of filing a false police report. (No reasonable person believes I brought the meeting to a stop by raising my arm.) Instead vindication will have to wait until trial in February 2006 when we take Baker, members of the City Council, and others to trial for false arrest. McCord makes no mention of the upcoming trial.

When McCord and photographer Dan Coyro and I went to City Council to take a photo of me at the podium, City Clerk Leslie Cook refused to open the chambers for us, even though, as Coyro noted, it was customary for that to happen during other photo shoots. “It was petty,� concluded the veteran photographer. Another small detail, showing the City Hall's attitude, that doesn't make McCord's story.

The right of the public to be at a City Council meeting, to be able to make (some) public comment on every item, and not to be discriminated against for the content of that comment are the core of my concern with the Council's rules and their practice. This is an issue of real concern to the public. I take these matters seriously. It is why I have found myself on occasion unwilling to surrender a right even when I am faced with the threat of force, imprisonment, and trial. McCord's article gives little hint of this.
Since Council doesn't seem to take the public seriously anyway generally (unless they're rich developers, the Seaside Company, police-related, etc.), why bother? Perhaps it's because things should be different and perhaps someday will be different. And some of us behave with our eyes on that future day.
But you don't have to be a starry-eyed visionary to be concerned about the Council's public comment-cutting antics. If Councilmembers don't like the remarks they're getting from critics like me, perhaps they'll decide to expand their power and cut back time on other issues like Home Depot, or the Metro Center, or the next Richard Wilson developer's dream. If the Council can get away with defining some public commentary as “abusive�, then why not do so and do away with or shorten it?

I predict City Council will pass the upcoming “Party at your Peril� law, on June 28th without any meaningful statistics showing the need, without consulting the community at the formation-of-law stage, without taking into account student and tenant concerns. Councilmembers seem to make up their minds long before the public comment period anyway. During its meetings, the Council takes 95% of the time for its own "deliberations." It's natural for them to see negative or critical public comment as “abusive� and “time-wasting�.
Indeed, why waste time listening to the public if you're going to disregard them anyway? Why not speed up the process by taking up 99% of the time instead of 95%? And so new restrictions on public comment slip through. Since there's no meaningful public participation in the creation of laws (through commissions or committees), public comment becomes an annoying formality that must be sat through to avoid the appearance of violating the Brown Act.

McCord's article obviously couldn't have covered all of this, but it would have been refreshing to see her try.

Sentinel editor Don Miller has agreed to consider printing a longer editorial of mine this weekend.

We'll see if I can get it done and if he wants to print it. Don't hold your breath

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