Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Free Speech in Belmont, CA under attack by the Thought Police.

Free Speech in Belmont, CA
under attack by the Thought Police. 


OP-ED: Free speech and Belmont
October 07, 2014, 05:00 AM By Tim E. Strinden

In June, the Belmont City Council imposed a code of ethics and conduct on all elected and appointed city officials that severely restricts freedom of speech — including facial expressions. All members of city boards and commissions were required to sign the new code or be fired, and councilmembers who didn’t sign were ineligible for committee assignments, and subject to censure for violating the code. All required officials did sign the new conduct code, except for two courageous and principled members of the Planning Commission; Kristen Mercer and Karin Hold, who refused to do so. The issue came to a head at the Aug. 26 City Council meeting, where former mayor Dave Warden, Mercer and Planning Commission Chair Mark Herbach explained clearly and passionately why the new code was seriously flawed and harmful. As a result of their testimony, the council decided not to remove Mercer and Hold because the code was not in effect when they were appointed. However, any new appointees would still be required to sign. I greatly admire and appreciate Warden, Mercer and Herbach for their courage and integrity in confronting the council on this issue. I agree with them that the code is excessive and unnecessary, and will serve to intimidate city employees and hinder free speech. Their comments to the council are a perfect example of the dangers posed by the code. If they had been on the council when making their comments, they could easily have been censured for violating the following sections of the code: A.3. — Making “personal charges or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of other members of Council.” B.1(b) — Making “personal, impertinent ... or disparaging comments.” B.1(c) — Making “personal comments that could offend other members.” However, their comments were justified and reasonable in illustrating flaws in the code, and their personal references to Mayor Warren Lieberman were appropriate and relevant in claiming that his past comments would have violated the code. As long as personal comments are truthful and relevant, it is a disservice to the political process and the community to suppress them. Probably all councilmembers — past or present — could also have been censured for making “facial expressions” of “disbelief, anger,” as prohibited by section B.2.(c), in response to comments by speakers. Speakers at council meetings often make outlandish and hostile comments, and it is unreasonable to expect councilmembers to sit stone-faced in response, without showing any expression. These facial expressions are usually spontaneous and it would violate human nature not to show any reaction. It appears to me that the new code of conduct could easily be used and abused by a majority of councilmembers to stifle and control minority members who have strong opposing views on certain subjects. The vague wording leaves it open to broad interpretation and misuse. I believe the effect of the code will be to wring all passion, intensity and interest out of council meetings, causing all issues to be treated in the same ho-hum manner. However, we elect our councilmembers expecting them to speak and act with intensity on issues of importance to the community, like the Crystal Springs Upland School proposal. We don’t want such issues to slip through the council unnoticed, and expect the council to show some passion in discussing them. Therefore, this new conduct code undercuts our rights as citizens to have councilmembers fight forcefully and effectively for us on these important issues. I wish to thank Mercer and Hold for standing by their principles and refusing to sign the new code. Warden, Mercer, Hold and Herbach are public servants of the highest caliber, and I worry that this new code will make such effective employees reluctant to work for the city. As for myself, I would not sign the code, so am prohibited from serving on any city board or commission. Over time, the city may attract only council and board members who are spineless bureaucrats, afraid to take action or fully express themselves for fear of offending someone. Such weak advocates for the city are more likely to be intimidated and manipulated, and make decisions in favor of special interests rather than the citizens overall. As Mercer said to the council, there are already enough ethics and conduct rules on the books to suffice without this new one. I agree with Herbach that the new code almost smacks of McCarthyism, and request that it be repealed before it can cause extensive harm to the community. At a minimum, I ask that the egregious sections I cited be eliminated. As I know from my experience as an auditor and whistle-blower for U.S. Customs, there is no more important right in our society than freedom of speech. Tim E. Strinden is a retired federal auditor. He lives in Belmont. 

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