pbs rick rieffThe latest PBS SoCal political roundtable took up the issue of William Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitic, homophobic rant at the Sept. 30 special council meeting. The moderator cued up the topic and asked SoCal Insider host Rick Reiff for his take:

Two words come to mind: gutter politics. You know, there are serious differences in the city of Anaheim, real, substantive arguments are going on in that community, and have divided the council and the rest of the city, whether to subsidize resort area development,  whether to change the way that council members are elected to give Latinos a bigger voice, how much to give the Angels to keep them in town – these are all those kinds of issues.

To try to link Tom Tait, who whether you agree with him or disagree with him, I don’t know a human being who would say Tom Tait is not a decent human being, to try to suggest that because…frankly, if you look at a video of what happened, he was floored by these comments, and its notable that nobody else on the council, as strongly as they feel now, said anything at that time, at that moment, and Tait, he condemned those remarks, he said “You’re over the line,” he did say you have free speech  and all that but this is over the line. And what more is the guy reasonably supposed to do? 

Now, there are people who are saying he should shut off the microphone, and you should do all that, and then you get sued and you lose. And this guy who made these remarks, has sued the county in the past, and took the supervisors for a whole long thing. And so to try to link this thing — you know, i can almost see now…it’s interesting you pointed out how the council, how Tait’s enemies seem to have back off a little, but you know, I can just wait for the campaign flyers to go out that Tait is anti-Semitic, he’s endorsing anti-Semitic behavior, and you know what this guy said is disgusting, there are kooks out there, we do have a First Amendment, people have a right to speak to speak at a council meeting and you know, I just think it is reprehensible that those who are against Tait are trying to tie him to these regrettable disgusting remarks.

Rick Reiff has been a friend of many years. he has a very sharp mind and has been observing the Orange County political scene for a long time. However, his commentary here is off-base in many way, and at one point takes on the characteristic of what he is condemning. His observations sound like they’;re from someone whose information about Anaheim politics comes from reading Voice of OC coverage (which paint a very one-sided picture) , and not from closer to the action on the ground.

Red Herring Arguments
There are several points of respectful disagreement and correction that merit illumination here.  First, this issue is not about whether or not Tom Tait is a decent human being. That is a red herring, because no one is claiming otherwise. Of course Tom Tait is a decent man, and I’ve no doubt he felt deep revulsion at Fitzgerald’s rant.

However, this point by Reiff is the same illogical distraction that’s been raised a number of times since the incident. It is symptomatic of the increasingly prevalent attitude among mayor Tait’s more ardent advocates that to disagreeing with him is constitutes an attack on his person, as if someone’s personhood were inseparable from this or that policy or political stance (I am not leveling that particular criticism against Rick Reiff).

The “No Other Councilmember Said Anything About Fitzgerald” Canard
Rick’s also said: “Frankly, if you look at a video of what happened, he was floored by these comments, and its notable that nobody else on the council, as strongly as they feel now, said anything at that time, at that moment…” Actually, if one does look at the video it is clear that Rick’s claim isn’t true – the other members of the council can be heard voicing their outrage and dismay. Councilwoman Lucille Kring can be heard urging Jordan Brandman to sue Fitzgerald. The implication of Rick’s comment is that not only did the rest of the council silent in the face of Fitzgerald rant, but that their outrage and anger aren’t sincere – which is untrue and unfair.

Fitzgerald was the first person to speak that morning during public comments, which went on for an hour – during that time, only a few speakers who followed Fitzgerald condemned or took exception to Fitzgerald’s comments, focusing their ire on the council majority.

The “Fitzgerald Will Sue” Argument
Rick also repeats a point made by others: the city is powerless in the face of people like Fitzgerald, because Fitzgerald sued the county,  Never mentioned is the fact that Fitzgerald lost that lawsuit (although I believe that is being appealed by the ACLU, which is representing Fitzgerald). Call me crazy, but I think if that lawsuit is to be used as an argument, its result ought not be omitted.

When Councilman Jordan Brandman proposed rescinding an 18-month old council policy allowing the mayor to place items on the agenda in between council meetings, Mayor Tait’s partisans rent their garments and wailed such a change would silence the mayor and mark the end of democracy in Anaheim (I exaggerate only very little). The office of the mayor is more than that single, newly bestowed prerogative. In its function as presiding officer at council meetings, the position also assume a moral authority and given the 1st Amendment protections rightly and necessarily afforded those who address the council, that moral authority is indispensable to maintaining proper decorum in the council chamber.

The Anaheim municipal code contains Rules of Decorum for addressing the city council, pertinent excerpts from which follow:

.0101   Each person who addresses the City Council during any meeting of the City Council shall refrain from personal, threatening, abusive, slanderous or profane remarks to any member of the Council, staff or general public which remarks disrupt, disturb or impede the orderly conduct of the Council meeting. Any person who makes such disruptive remarks, or engages in any conduct which disrupts, disturbs or impedes the orderly conduct of any Council meeting, shall, at the discretion of the presiding officer or a majority of the Council, be barred from further addressing the Council during that meeting.

.0102   For purposes of this section, conduct which disrupts, disturbs or impedes the orderly conduct of the meeting shall include, but shall not be limited to: (a) continuing to speak after having been advised by the presiding officer that the time limit for such comments as set by the City Council or the presiding officer has expired, or (b) unduly repetitious comments as determined by the presiding officer, or (c) comments regarding any matter not within the subject matter jurisdiction of the City Council, or (d) comments which are irrelevant or otherwise not related to a specific agenda item for which public comments are then being received.

.020   Enforcement of Decorum. The rules of decorum set forth above shall be enforced in the following manner:

.0201   The presiding officer may request that a person who is breaching the rules of decorum set forth in subsection .010 above be orderly and otherwise comply with the applicable rule of decorum being breached. If, after receiving a warning from the presiding officer, a person persists in disrupting, disturbing or impeding the meeting, the presiding officer may order him or her to refrain from further speaking at such meeting. If such person fails or refuses to be and remain silent, the presiding officer may order such person to leave the meeting room. If such person does not remove himself or herself in an orderly and expeditious manner, the presiding officer may order any law enforcement officer on duty at the meeting to remove that person from the meeting room.

If these rules are unconstitutional, then they ought to be repealed. If not, then they ought to be enforced.

The Real Point
What ought to be the real point of this episode has been lost amid the back-and-forth over what one can say during public comments, or whether or not Tom Tait is a nice guy. Fitzgerald has always said these sort of things at Anaheim council meetings. But until recently, he was an outlier, a weirdo, the expectation. During the last 18 months or so, he has become less the expectation and more the norm for the kind of rhetoric and behavior exhibited by those who habituate the chambers during council meetings. Booing and jeering and heckling have become a routine feature of Anaheim city council meetings — not just from expected sources like UNITE-HERE goon squads or OCCORD’s automotons. The sad, unfortunate truth is this is primarily engaged in by artisans and allies of Mayor Tait.

Take the September 30 special council meeting, for example:

– Los Amigos founder Amin David said Jordan Brandman a “despicable person.”

– Helen Myers (Cynthia Ward’s pal and treasurer for reclusive millionaire Tony Bushala’s political action committees) said to the council majority she “asked god to speak to your hearts, Jordan and Kris, and Lucille and Gail, those of you who profess to be Christians; how can you go to church on Sundays and pray to God,  and take Communion, and not have this in your hearts?” Really? God cares about council procedure? Not allowing the mayor of Anaheim to agendize items between council meetings makes one a bad Christian?

And the inimitable Cynthia Ward: “I went through the same ethics training you did. And our council – who far outdistances the city’s…the only right thing to do is would you do this in front of your mother? Would you do this in front of your mother?” Whaa??? The council majority’s mothers should be ashamed of them over this?

The 16-year old daughter of members of this faction had this to say to Councilman Brandman: “I don’t understand how you could seem so genuine before, but now…you’re just a monster.” The peanut gallery loudly communicated its approval to her by vigorously applauding the labeling of Brandman as a “monster” for his proposed change to a matter of procedure. Good life lesson.

According to these supporters of Mayor Tait, proposing to end a year-and-a-half old agendizing power of the position of mayor makes someone a despicable, un-Christian monster whose mother would be ashamed of him/her.

Tell me again where the “gutter politics” is coming from?

Rules of Decorum Can Enhance Freedom of Speech
Anaheim has rules of Decorum for a reason: these rules enhance rather than inhibit free political speech. It is a microcosm of ordered liberty. Passively indulging the boorishness and mob behavior of a gaggle of gadflies – a number of whom are not even Anaheim residents — in the name of protecting their freedom of speech, in reality deters other Anaheim residents from expressing their views at city council meetings. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to comprehend that reality. Most normal people are don’t like to speak in public. The prospect makes them nervous and they are reluctant to do so, even when they feel very strongly about an issue.

Factor in the likelihood of being jeered, booed and heckled by the peanut gallery that has taken up permanent residence at Anaheim council meetings, and the reality is Anaheim residents who would like to address the council choose to stay home and stay quiet. The question then is, does the climate that has been allowed to take hold in the name of “protecting” free speech, in reality contract rather than expand the public square?

Which brings us back to the point about the position of the mayor as presiding officer of the council. The person wielding that gavel possesses a moral authority that shapes the environment in the chamber. The question is whether that authority is used to foster an environment in which everyone feels they can express their opinion without being hooted down, or will control of the chamber be ceded to those whose willingness to shout others down drives out those who would express opposing views.

Partisans of Mayor Tait contended that rescinding a newly-minted agendizing power would cripple the mayor, while at the same time claiming the mayor is powerless in the face of a raving lunatic. Neither is true – regardless of who is mayor.

I was heartened to see unanimity among the mayor and city council on the subject of renewing civility in the council chamber, because that is manifestly in the interest of free speech, genuine debate and the competition of ideas. to that end, I hope there will also be vigorous and continuing exhortation — and when necessary, firm rebuff — to those addressing the council that civility is in the interest of everyone.