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'Super Gadfly' Had His Day in Court . . . Lost : City hall: Municipal Court jury convicts Daniel Rosenberg after city officials testify that he illegally disrupted a City Council meeting. He claimed free speech.

August 23, 1990|SHAWN DOHERTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — As the self-anointed "super gadfly" of Long Beach, Daniel Rosenberg considers it an honor to be one of the most despised men in City Hall. And he was proud to be on trial this week on charges that he disrupted a City Council meeting.

Among the witnesses called to testify were Mayor Ernie Kell, a councilman, a city attorney and a police officer.

"These people are my archenemies," said Rosenberg, 61, during a break in the trial. "They don't like me because I've told the truth and fought the Establishment, and now they want my head."

City officials say that over the years Rosenberg's discourses at council meetings have become as predictable as the chiming of the nearby town clock. They say Rosenberg hurts the very process he espouses by monopolizing the floor with comments.

Relations are so bad that councilmen roll their eyes as soon as the activist approaches the microphone. The mayor has taken to shutting off the microphone during especially long-winded comments.

"He's no gadfly," said one councilman who asked to remain anonymous. "He's just a pain in the ---."

On March 20, Rosenberg was arrested after he kept talking about an item that councilmen suddenly postponed to a future hearing. Rosenberg, shouting at one point to be heard after Kell turned off his microphone, insisted that he had a right to speak.

Confusion ensued as the mayor asked Rosenberg to sit down, requested advice from a city attorney, declared a recess and finally had a police officer escort Rosenberg out of the chambers.

Rosenberg was held on suspicion of violating a city code that prohibits the "disruption" of a City Council meeting and was released on his own recognizance. A Municipal Court jury found Rosenberg guilty Wednesday, and he faces a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Efforts to settle the case continued until minutes before the trial began Monday, sources said, when Rosenberg rejected an offer from the prosecution to plead no contest in return for 40 hours of community service.

"I have to stand up for what I think is right," Rosenberg said before the trial began. "I'm not being reckless."

About a dozen people, including several city officials and a few of the city's colorful swarm of gadflies, watched this week as Rosenberg's trial became a new theater for the longstanding feud between Rosenberg and city politicians.

During opening arguments Tuesday, public defender Ray Glaser suggested that Rosenberg's right to free speech is at stake.

"This is someone who woke up on the morning of March 20 with a mission . . . to go to a council meeting . . . for people who were too sick and tired," Glaser said, thumping Rosenberg on the back.

The jury stared at Rosenberg, who was wearing an old suit and scribbled notes on scraps of paper.

The prosecution focused on Long Beach city laws. "His conduct prevented (the council) from getting on with city business," argued the deputy city prosecutor, Susan Melton.

The high point of the trial so far occurred Wednesday, when Rosenberg himself walked to the witness stand. It was a different platform than what he is used to, but Rosenberg calmly answered questions.

Rosenberg said that based on his experience of attending "more than 200" meetings of the City Council, he believes that the council violated its own customs when it refused to allow him to speak.

He also implied that he is a victim of politics. "I've never seen the mayor turn the mike off when a developer is at the microphone," he said. "But when a citizen-activist is at the mike, he turns it off."

At least half a dozen times during about 30 minutes of testimony, Municipal Court Judge John S. Lane reprimanded Rosenberg for speaking out of turn and not sticking to the point.

During one scolding, Rosenberg threw up his hands and grinned at the jury.

Kell, the first witness called to the stand, sat stiff and poker-faced during cross-examination Tuesday. Glaser questioned the mayor's knowledge of council procedures. While Kell seemed unsure of his responses at times, he steadfastly insisted that Rosenberg's behavior had been "extremely disruptive."

The prosecution's second witness was Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who had moved to postpone the item that Rosenberg had planned to discuss during the March meeting. When the prosecutor asked Braude whether Rosenberg was at the council meeting on the day of the alleged crime, the councilman responded with what appeared to be a grimace: "He usually is."

"Objection!" Glaser yelled.

City officials complain that ever since cable TV began broadcasting council meetings seven years ago, there has been an increase in the number of people like Rosenberg who regularly show up for council meetings.

These regulars range from activists from the city's growing number of grass-roots organizations to a handful of others that some councilmen privately call "the chronic cranks."

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