The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sparked an outcry from free-speech advocates Tuesday when it moved to muzzle a persistent gadfly who frequently criticizes board actions.
At the center of the dispute is Merritt Holloway, a 49-year-old tailor from South Los Angeles. Every week, Holloway plants himself before the board's public microphone to denounce what he views as the waste and corruption saturating the county. His remarks are generally long, disjointed and salted with insults, none of which has endeared him to the board.
When Holloway tried to comment on 18 agenda items at a recent session, Supervisor Gloria Molina decided she had heard enough.
Complaining that Holloway had made "consistent mockery of the Brown Act," the state law regulating public access to government meetings, Molina proposed a new policy to eject "disruptive" speakers and bar their comments at future meetings for up to 90 days.
The board approved the rule Tuesday on a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Mike Antonovich abstaining.
"The issue is about order," Molina said. "I don't think this is going to limit anyone's right to speak to us or even insult us if they want to."
But the move -- coupled with a report about public access that the county's lawyer, Lloyd Pellman, refused to make public -- sparked criticism from 1st Amendment advocates who branded it a troubling trend for a county with a dubious commitment to open government.
Last month a state appellate court ruled that Pellman and the Board of Supervisors violated the state's open meeting law in 2001, when the board attempted to secretly quash a ballot initiative that would have cost the county money. The lawsuit that prompted the ruling was brought by The Times.
Pellman, who did not attend Tuesday's session, said through a deputy that his report on open access was a confidential communication between a lawyer and his client.
"We are seriously concerned about how the man who is supposed to be giving legal advice about the Brown Act is violating it at every turn," said Karen Ocamb of the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition, a group of journalism and civic organizations.
Ocamb called the board members' latest rule "punitive," adding: "I have a lot of qualms about their discretion in essentially banning someone from addressing them."
The Ralph M. Brown Act requires legislative bodies to allow for public comment at their meetings, but it also lets them adopt "reasonable regulations," such as time limits for speakers.
Los Angeles County supervisors generally allow people three minutes each for public comment. Board meetings are sometimes sparsely attended, and many items on the agenda fly by without debate -- unless someone requests that they be held for discussion. That someone is often Holloway.
Last week, when he asked to address items 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 19, 21, 25, 35, 36, 38, 39, 48, 49, 50, 52 and 53, Molina was swift to object.
"He'll come in next week and mock us even more and hold all 55 items, if he would like, and I think this has to stop," she said.
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the board's chairwoman, ruled that Holloway could address only one item, and when Holloway said such a limit violated the Brown Act, Burke replied: "Let me tell you what your alternative is. You can file a lawsuit against us."
Holloway, whose chief complaint is that the county Department of Children and Family Services took away his 2-year-old son, then launched into a lengthy critique involving environmental pollution, corrupt judges and the county's fee waivers for community groups. He concluded by inviting people to a rally aimed at recalling Burke and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
"The reason they don't like me is because I'm criticizing them," Holloway said Tuesday after the board's vote. "That's what they call viewpoint discrimination."
Antonovich also appeared troubled.
"At times it is inconvenient, but ... a citizen has a right to address their governing body," said the supervisor, who began to fondly reminisce about gadflies of years past: "Remember Leonard Shapiro? And Mr. Ross, God bless him.... "
"When did he ever ask to speak on 10 items?" Burke interrupted.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, called the board's solution "legally suspect."
"It's one thing to say you've got three minutes per meeting," Francke said. "It's quite another thing to say you have three minutes per quarter. I doubt that would pass muster."