POMONA — A community activist was arrested and another man forcibly ejected from this week's City Council meeting after the two became loud and disruptive and refused to leave voluntarily, officials said.
Al Ramirez, who has published scathing criticisms of city officials in newspaper advertisements and in his own newsletters, was arrested outside the council chambers by Pomona Police Sgt. Charles Watts when Ramirez tried to re-enter the building after Watts had ordered him out.
Ramirez, 62, was taken to the police station next door and booked on suspicion of disrupting a public meeting, a misdemeanor, Capt. Ron Hargett said. Police kept Ramirez in custody for four hours to prevent him returning to the meeting, then released him on his own recognizance, Hargett said.
The incident that led to Ramirez' arrest began when resident John Marshall Lawrence refused to leave the podium during a public hearing on a proposed redevelopment project for the Indian Hill Mall.
Lawrence said it was illegal for the city to use public funds for the project. As he has done in previous appearances before the council, Lawrence cited numerous statutes and court precedents in support of his argument. And as in the past, this caused him to exceed the 5-minute limit on audience comments.
Insisting that the council's 5-minute rule is unconstitutional, Lawrence defied Mayor Donna Smith's directive to sit down and be quiet.
"I am not out of order," he shouted at Smith. "You are out of order!"
Assigned to Keep Order
Watts, who last month was assigned to keep order at council meetings after a series of disturbances, told Lawrence to leave. Lawrence refused, grabbing the podium. Smith quickly called a recess and left through a side exit.
Ramirez then rose from his seat, shouting, "Let that man speak! You're violating his rights." He demanded that the officer explain on what charge Lawrence was being ejected from the meeting.
Watts grabbed Lawrence's left wrist--pinning Lawrence's arm behind his back and eliciting cries of pain--and led Lawrence up the aisle in which Ramirez was standing and yelling.
After escorting Lawrence outside, Watts returned to the council chambers and warned Ramirez that he, too, would be removed from the meeting if he did not return to his seat. "What are you going to do, arrest me?" Ramirez responded, according to Watts' report on the incident.
Watts said in his report that Ramirez resisted efforts to move outside and upon reaching the front door of the building, tried to force his way back in and resumed yelling. Hargett, who was standing nearby, then told Watts to arrest Ramirez.
In a subsequent council discussion, Councilman C.L. (Clay) Bryant, who shares the two activists' opposition to the city's utility tax, said he agreed with the action taken against them, describing the incident as "planned provocation."
However, Bryant questioned whether the way Watts removed Lawrence from the meeting was reasonable.
Councilman E.J. Gaulding rejected the idea that the officer used excessive force. "To say that (Lawrence) was mishandled is entirely out of order," he said.
Lawrence, who was physically carried out of a council meeting in a similar incident Aug. 29, describes himself as general counsel for Comsafe Inc., "a human-rights legal defense and education corporation," which he says is incorporated in Ohio.
An official with the Ohio Department of Corporations said this week that there is no record of Comsafe in that state. Lawrence is not listed as a member of the state bar in California. Lawrence could not be reached for comment.
Ramirez, a former teacher and parole officer, is director of the Miracle Music Ministry in Pomona, which offers classes in music, religion and sexuality.
For more than a year, Ramirez has run a campaign of civic criticism through the classified ads in a Pomona newspaper. The brief diatribes have alleged widespread corruption in City Hall, called for the firing of City Administrator A.J. Wilson and urged residents to refuse to pay the city's 11% utility tax.
Ramirez also distributes a newsletter in which he presents his views in more detail, often targeting the mayor. His charges against Smith range from abuse of power to wearing clothing that was too revealing at a council meeting.
Contacted the day after his arrest, Ramirez said he rose to Lawrence's defense because he believed the 5-minute limit is "an illegal gag rule to muzzle opponents."
The city charter requires that residents be permitted to speak at council meetings to raise grievances and offer suggestions for improving the city. However, the charter also gives the council and the mayor the authority to limit comments to preserve order at meetings.
Ramirez said Smith is capricious in enforcing the 5-minute rule.
"If you're on her side, Donna Smith will let you talk more than five minutes," he said. "If you're an opponent, she'll cut you off."
Ramirez is to appear in Pomona Municipal Court on the charge Oct. 8. However, he said he will seek to have the case transferred to federal court on the grounds that his civil rights have been violated. He also threatened to sue the city.
"Using these Gestapo tactics and goon squad techniques is going to cost the city millions of dollars," he said.