DOWNEY — City Council members acknowledged Tuesday that their attempts to quiet two longtime critics have resulted in a noisy backfire.
Responding to public protest, the council scrapped a proposed emergency ordinance that would have limited public participation at council meetings and allowed the mayor to evict "disorderly, contemptuous or insolent" speakers.
Instead, the council Tuesday unanimously approved a tamer set of procedures for public participation that merely asks spectators to "respect the rights of others" and to stick to the subject when addressing the council.
The emergency ordinance was proposed in the wake of a raucous Jan. 14 council meeting that featured numerous clashes between council members and gadflies Lennie Whittington and John Gonzalez. But at subsequent council meetings, the proposed ordinance drew howls of protest--not only from the two activists, but from several other residents, including a city commission member and the president of the League of Women Voters of Downey.
The new procedures, to be printed on the back page of council agendas distributed to the public, impose a 5-minute limit on speakers appearing before the council during a portion of the meeting set aside for public participation. A 5-minute limit was proposed in the emergency ordinance and has been customarily followed during council meetings.
The guidelines, though, do not include the strictest features of the proposed ordinance. Those would have called for the eviction of disorderly spectators and would have barred the public from discussing individual items on the agenda.
"The emergency ordinance was certainly the wrong thing to do," Councilwoman Diane Boggs said in an interview. "It caused a sense of panic. It was an overreaction . . . to a very difficult council meeting."
While all five council members agreed that the proposed emergency ordinance was a bad idea, they couldn't decide just whose bad idea it was.
Councilman Randy Barb said the proposed ordinance was the brainchild of Mayor Bob Davila, and Barb and other council members complained that they had never requested, wanted or needed the ordinance.
Davila said he did not request the proposed emergency ordinance either, and complained that it would have given the mayor "dictatorship powers." Davila said he had requested that city officials write new procedures for governing public participation at council meetings. The ordinance was subsequently written by City Atty. Carl Newton.
Davila, however, said he may not have given city officials "clear-cut guidance." Newton said he had never been told by city administrators whether the ordinance had been requested by Davila or the entire council. City Manager Don Davis said he did not recall who had requested it.
Government Code Cited
Barb and Councilmen Bob Cormack and James Santangelo said they thought the proposed ordinance was unnecessary because the state government code already provides for the removal of disorderly people. What the council really needs, the three council members said, is for Davila to be a more effective chairman.
"The only thing that is needed is to have the chairman run the meeting properly," Santangelo said. "Somehow the (Jan. 14) meeting got away from him (Davila) and people in the audience were running the meeting instead of him."
Davila, however, said other council members were to blame for the raucous meeting because they had provoked arguments with Whittington and Gonzalez.
Cormack said even the new guidelines are unnecessary.
"We don't need the darn thing; the chairman just has to run the meeting," Cormack said. Cormack, the council's senior member, said Davila and other recent mayors had tried too hard to be "Mr. Nice Guy" and had allowed too much public participation in council meetings.
"The general public now thinks (council meetings) are a town meeting where they can come in and straighten out the city," said Cormack, a councilman since 1980. "We're wasting a lot of unnecessary time talking about a lot of unnecessary things."
Meanwhile, Gonzalez, who had touched off the original controversy by criticizing the council at least seven times during the Jan. 14 meeting, said he thought the new procedures were "completely wrong" because council meetings should be a "place where people have a right to express . . . themselves in every single way."
Whittington declined comment, saying he was unfamiliar with the new procedures.