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LOCAL Announcement :: Government & Elections

Letter to Mayor Challenges Discriminatory Process at City Council

On February 8th, Vice-Mayor Cynthia Mathews cut speaker Michael Tomasi's comment time down to 90 seconds in the middle of a Public Hearing. The letter below challenges this as a violation of the state Brown Act. The City has 30 days to redo the item or to reject the demand.
The following is a copy of the letter I sent to Mayor Mike Rotkin today. Michael Tomasi is a colorful often pungent speaker at City Council whose directness often makes me wince. Still, if they can cut his time in half arbitrarily, they can do it to anyone, hence this Brown Act complaint.

309 Cedar PMB #14B
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

March 8, 2005

Mayor Mike Rotkin
Santa Cruz, CA
Dear Mayor Rotkin,

Re: Agenda item #16 February 8, 2005 City Council meeting at the afternoon session.

I would like to draw your attention to a Brown Act violation committed by acting chair Vice-Mayor Cynthia Mathews which I request you correct. Vice-Mayor Mathews violated Sections 54954.3(a) and 54954(c) of the Ralph M. Brown Act in the Government Code. Section 5.4954.3(a) reads: “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 ordering the legislative body's consideration of the item…? Section 54954(c) reads “The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body…?

After my public testimony on that item (which was allowed only because I insisted on it--the Vice-Mayor was moving immediately to a vote without taking time for public testimony), Mr. Michael Tomasi, a homeless vet who often speaks at Council meetings, approached the chair to give his testimony. At that time, the Vice-Mayor illegally shortened public testimony time from 3 minutes to 90 seconds.

This action was taken in the middle of a Public Hearing on the Final Adoption of an Ordinance. The verbal interchange went as follows:

Ms. Mathews: “Further testimony? [on seeing Mr. Tomasi approach] You know, we’re running quite behind. And so, Mr. Tomasi, I’m going to ask that you keep your comments to ninety seconds. And I’m going to make that…?
Mr. Tomasi: “Why would you do that??
Ms. Mathews: “Because we’re running behind time. We have a lot of business still to conduct and I think your point can be made…
Mr. Tomasi: “Well you know what? The only kind of power I wanted you to..?
Ms. Mathews (interrupting): “Please, start the clock.?
Mr. Tomasi: “…police department. Hey, I’m talkin now.?
Ms. Mathews: “You asked me..?
Mr. Tomasi: (interrupting) “Thank you.?
Ms. Mathews: “I’m clarifying..?
Mr. Tomasi: (interrupting) “Thank you.?
Ms. Mathews: “Clarifying with Leslie.?
Mr. Tomasi: “Thank you.?

Mr. Tomasi is a homeless veteran who lives in his vehicle. His public comment to City Council is often not welcomed by the Mayor (or in this case, the Vice-Mayor chairing the meeting). Singling him out to cut short his testimony in the middle of a Public Hearing is clearly discriminatory and, I believe, illegal.

I ask you to redo the item and give Mr. Tomasi the time to speak that every other member of the public was allowed--assuming they had the temerity to shout from the back of the room to remind the Vice-Mayor that Public Comment time was still a part of the political process, as I did.

In addition to making a formal Brown Act demand, I am writing to make a second request (the first was by phone to Vice-Mayor Mathew’s official voice mail machine) that she apologize to Mr. Tomasi, the public, and to me. She not only shortchanged Mr. Tomasi and any members of the public or City Council who may want to have heard him, but she subsequently publicly denied she had done so.

Later that evening during Oral Communications, speaking right after Mr. Tomasi, I said, “Members of the community, councilmembers, Robert Norse. You know, the speaker who spoke before doesn’t please the City Council often. And I know earlier today Vice-Mayor Mathews acting as chair suddenly decided she was going to discriminatorily cut short his speaking time to ninety seconds rather than the three minutes normally allowed. And I had the thought as I walked away from Council that if this Council actually spent ninety seconds seriously considering the concerns that Mr. Tomasi brings back time and time again regarding the seizure of his vehicle, regarding the death of his dog… Then maybe he wouldn’t feel it necessary to constantly bring that up. But, of course, he is ignored and dismissed and treated as a comic act here. I’m concerns about homeless people. I’m concerned about how they’re treated in this community. And specifically in terms of the responsibility of this Council…?

When I was finished, Vice-Mayor Mathews said: “I’d like to make just a brief comment in case people go away with an inaccurate impression. I was briefly acting--chairing the meeting this afternoon. I did not shorten the time for Mr. Tomasi alone. We had a very full agenda and were running late. I shortened the time for everyone, but gave everyone a chance to speak. Mr. Tomasi and Mr. Norse had already spoken on probably about eight items. There were scores of other people waiting for other important items on our agenda. And to my impression all the other Councilmembers concurred with my decision to shorten the time for public comment.?

The time on item #16 was shortened for Mr. Tomasi alone. I had already gotten three minutes. The arbitrary and abrupt action was taken in the middle of a public hearing. She did not ask the Council for a ruling on her unusual action.

The fact that Mr. Tomasi had spoken on prior items was not relevant--though perhaps she was indicating she’d hear enough from him (indicating a probable violation of 54954(c)). Her estimate of “scores? of people waiting was not accurate, but again was irrelevant.

In addition to requesting that action in item #16 be rescinded and the public hearing reopened, I ask Vice-Mayor Mathews and Mayor Rotkin to clarify that they will not be interrupting Public Hearings to shorten time during public testimony (except perhaps under emergency circumstances). For the public to negotiate the public-hostile “decorum? rules of City Council is task enough. To add arbitrary and illegal mayoral censorship is insufferable.


Sincerely,

Robert Norse (423-4833)
 
 


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Comments

Re: Letter to Mayor Challenges Discriminatory Process at City Council

You're right. "An injury to one is an injury to all." Elected officials need to follow the law which is clear about equal time to address public bodies.

BTW, great show on Community T.V. with Ray Glock-Gruenich on homelessness and the law this week. I hope that it will be aired again.
 

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