Carson's mayor has a tool that almost any politician would love to have: a mute button. If someone talks too much at a City Council meeting, with a flick of the finger, the microphone goes dead.
But after receiving a complaint that Mayor Jim Dear was shutting people down because he didn't like what they were saying, rather than waiting until they had used up their allotted three minutes of free speech time, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office is looking into whether he has violated the state's open meetings law.
"It's a very unique complaint," said David Demerjian, who heads the district attorney's Public Integrity Division. "I have never heard of a mute button being used by a mayor of any city in the county of Los Angeles."
Demerjian said his office had undertaken "an inquiry" rather than an investigation because no criminal activity has been alleged. If his office finds that Dear did have an itchy mute-button finger, Demerjian said his office would write a letter to the mayor asking him to stop or ask a judge to issue a court order to prevent it.
City Atty. William Wynder said he thought the inquiry was triggered by a letter to the district attorney sent by a Carson resident who regularly speaks at council meetings.
In his three-paragraph letter dated Jan. 7, Robert Lesley requested the mute button be removed. "By using this device (mute button), it has clearly disenfranchised me and other Carson Citizens from participating in our civil duties," he wrote.
In an interview, Lesley, who once had a cable access show about Carson, said that Dear cuts off anyone he disagrees with.
Lesley was last silenced at the Dec. 1 council meeting, he said.
"He used the power of that button to control my expression," Lesley said.
Dear said he had done nothing wrong. The inquiry, he said, "is in response to a poltiical gadfly that insists on getting his way at the city council meetings . . . and he basically wants to create trouble in the city of Carson. He's not constructive, positive or helpful to the community."
Councilman Mike Gipson said the mayor has silenced not only members of the public but also council colleagues.
Gipson said he brought a megaphone to a November council meeting in case the mayor tried to shut him off.
"This is a control factor," he said. "We got elected, and we take some unkind criticisms from our residents. It's their right to say those things, even if they're not factually based."
Council meetings in Carson can be contentious affairs, with two factions on the five-member panel doing combat, along with members of the community who parade before the microphone.
The mute button is just the latest imbroglio to hit Carson. In November 2008, Dear beat back a recall effort. His predecessor, Daryl Sweeney, was convicted in a bribery scheme. Sweeney was the second mayor and fourth City Council member to plead guilty in the corruption case.
Then there was the time a former mayor swatted a public works commissioner on the back of the head with a bunch of papers at a council meeting, sending her screaming and tumbling out of her seat. The incident became a YouTube hit.