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Blackout of Council Tiffs Urged : Media: Pomona mayor wants to exclude the public's often vitriolic responses at City Council meetings from cable TV.

April 25, 1991|MIKE WARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Donna Smith wants to pull the plug on one of Pomona's most popular spectator sports--City Council bashing.

Seeking to quell vitriolic attacks on City Council members, Smith has proposed that the city's cable television company turn off its cameras during the audience-participation portion of televised council meetings.

"Let our meetings be the forums of the business of our city instead of a bashing arena," said Smith in a prepared statement marking the start of her third term as mayor.

"When our meetings turn into a three-ring circus, we all look bad," Smith told her council colleagues. "My strongest suggestion will be for us as a team to call upon Continental Cablevision to stop broadcasting audience participation."

Smith made her suggestion at a brief council meeting Monday night after she and other newly elected council members were sworn into office. Unlike regular council meetings, this session did not include a time reserved for remarks from the audience. Otherwise, the mayor might have heard an earful.

Abe Tapia, a frequent speaker at council meetings and a mayoral candidate in the primary, said the mayor's proposal to turn off the cameras smacks of censorship. "That's tantamount to being a communist," he said. "For her to even consider that is shameful. Why would anyone want to keep local citizens from participating in government?"

Tapia said he intends to write a letter to the cable company insisting that it televise council meetings in full.

None of the council members reacted at the meeting to the mayor's suggestion, but Councilman Boyd Bredenkamp said afterward that turning off the cameras for a while might be worth trying to see if it makes council meetings more businesslike.

He said residents could still make remarks at the meeting; they just wouldn't have a television platform. "It wouldn't deprive citizens of anything," he said.

Opponents and supporters of Mayor Smith turned last week's council meeting--the day before the municipal runoff election--into a forum for political allegations and personal attacks.

The discussion was so emotional that at least two speakers came to the microphone out of breath, saying they had been watching the meeting at home on cable television and were so angered by what they heard that they had to rush to the council chambers to offer their opinions. One woman scolded the council and the audience, saying the display of ignorance and lack of decorum made her "ashamed to be a citizen of Pomona."

Despite last week's outbursts, Councilman Tomas Ursua, who lost the mayoral election to Smith by 98 votes, said audience remarks have not impeded the work of the council. "I haven't noticed it was a problem," he said.

Last year, when the community was in political turmoil over the campaign to recall controversial and combative C. L. (Clay) Bryant from the council, the speakers at council meetings were far more emotional than they have been in recent months, Ursua said.

Ursua said speakers from the audience tend to emulate the behavior of the council. "A lot of the rowdyism is due to the antagonisms on the council," he said. "If we can keep our heads at the council level, the audience will do the same."

New Councilman Ken West said he would like to discuss the mayor's suggestion with her before taking a position, but he thinks people watching at home should see what their fellow residents are saying at council meetings.

West said that television cameras may encourage sensationalism, but that he would be reluctant to inhibit public input. He said the council needs suggestions from residents.

Another new councilman, Willie White, said he would oppose restrictions on cable broadcasts.

He said a few people speak at council meetings because they want to see themselves on television, but most are raising legitimate concerns.

"Sometimes you have to suffer the bad to get the good," he said.

Steve Perry, community programming director for Continental Cablevision, said the company has been televising City Council meetings since 1985. Although the precise size of the audience is unknown, Perry said, council broadcasts are easily the most popular offering on the community programming channel.

The cable company's franchise does not require it to televise council meetings or specify any format, Perry said, but the cable company policy has been to televise meetings in their entirety.

Perry said it was awkward to respond to the mayor's suggestion without talking to her about it. The mayor was in Sacramento on Tuesday and Wednesday for legislative hearings on bills affecting the city's budget. If the council makes a request to restrict council-meeting coverage, Perry said, "then we'll be able to address it." Until then, he said, no changes in coverage are planned.

Mark A. T. Nymeyer, who left the council this week after eight years in office, urged the new council to raise the standards of political conduct in Pomona.

In his final remarks as a council member at this week's meeting, Nymeyer said he and his council colleagues engaged too often in "fighting and public nonsense."

He said: "We were downright unprofessional at times. We permitted petty fighting and personal attacks to become an accepted way of conducting business in this chamber. In some ways, we must accept the blame for the way the public has acted toward us, because it is often the way we have acted toward each other."

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