By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council approved a decorum and civility policy Tuesday to address residents’ complaints about the troubling discourse in the City Council chambers.
Mayor Bob Whalen said he’s been working on the new policy with City Manager John Pietig and City Attorney Phil Kohn that will apply to council members, members of the public, city staffers, and appointed officials serving on city commissions.
“You know, some people say it’s impossible to legislate good behavior and that may be true, but nonetheless, I think it’s important to set standards, have rules, [and] set some enforcement and consequences for a failure to comply,” Whalen said. “I think having it makes sense.”
The approved policy requires city officials to treat everyone courteously, listen to others respectfully, exercise self-control, be open-minded to all views, avoid personalizing debate, and provide fair and equal treatment for all people and issues.
City officials who intentionally and repeatedly flaunt the rules can be reprimanded by the Mayor and censured or removed from from the council chambers by a majority vote of the City Council. The Mayor can also order a disruptive person to leave a public meeting and request police officers’ assistance to carry out the order, according to the policy.
The policy also gives the Mayor the power to order the removal of signs, placards, and banners if such an item “disturbs, disrupts, or otherwise impedes the orderly conduct of the meeting.”
Whalen responded Tuesday to critiques by some residents who say he hasn’t done enough to end heated exchanges between Councilmember Peter Blake and audience members.
“I’m not going to defend how I’ve run past meetings,” Whalen said. “It’s a challenging job. Could I have done more? Maybe, but I’m not going back. I’m looking forward.”
Bickering in the City Council chambers hit a fever pitch at the July 9 meeting about the city’s potential abandonment of four unimproved pedestrians pathways. Earlier this month, Allison King recalled how Councilmember Peter Blake called her and fellow Temple Hills residents liars and her fear of being publicly attacked and sworn at.
Blake doubled down on these statements Tuesday.
“I own every single word I’ve ever said to anyone,” he said. “I will apologize for absolutely nothing I’ve ever said. I’ve called people liars who were lying, and yet no one has stepped up to say anything I said was a lie.”
He added that Village Laguna supporters are upset because residents who disagree with them on various issues now have a council member who isn’t afraid to stand up against the community group. Amid groans from audience members, Whalen cut Blake off.
“Peter, I think you’re not helping the situation,” he said.
“I will express myself every single time I want,” Blake responded.
“But you should do that in a way that doesn’t refer to people as liars,” Whalen then said. “You can disagree with them vehemently and take the point and say that yours is right and theirs is wrong, but you should not call them liars.”
South Laguna Beach resident M.J. Abraham was among the speakers who said they’ve begged the City Council for months to take action on the lack of civility on display in the council chambers. She cited Whalen’s comments at this year’s State of the City Address, saying that people have the right to express their opinions without being intimidated
“We could not agree with you more, in fact, that’s exactly why residents are here tonight that are brave enough to even come here,” Abraham said. “Over the last year, our city council chamber has become a battleground. This background has extended to our community through social media because there are no time limits and ability to silence us.”
Village Laguna president Johanna Felder said it’s not surprising that the public has reacted to Blake’s verbal jabs and name-calling from the dais, social media posts, and voicemails
“We need to be clear that the public has been the brunt of this, not the cause,” she said. “There is no question that we need rules of decorum and civility, but the focus of the Code that you’re proposing places more emphasis and fault on the public instead of where the problem actually lies.”
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Blake addressed a claim from Councilmember Toni Iseman that some residents have decided not to attend council meetings out of fear of being of verbally attacked. He argues that members of the public should call the Police Chief and ask for an officer to escort them to and from their cars if they feel unsafe about attending meetings. He also pointed out there is an officer—often in plain clothes—at every council meeting.
However, he believes that nothing will prevent gadflies from attending meetings.
“They would walk across glass shards to get to this building on Tuesday night,” Blake said. “How are you afraid when you’re the ones who started dirty campaigning in this community?”