Council OKs permissible-conduct law

An ordinance that would regulate permissible conduct at public meetings in Costa Mesa could have faced a torrent of harsh criticism.

But City Council members rendered moot part of the opposition's argument by saying they were willing to remove a listed behavior — repeating the same points of view, or being "unduly repetitive" — that City Hall observers had criticized since the ordinance's release last week.

Council members also said they wouldn't consider profanity or "obscene gestures" as disorderly.

In the end, after two hours of discussion, the council approved the first reading of the ordinance that codified a list of potentially disorderly behaviors that could lead public commenters to being kicked out of council chambers. Councilwoman Wendy Leece dissented on the 4-1 vote.

The council did not remove what it deemed other disruptive behaviors from the ordinance, including speaking out of turn, speaking beyond the permitted three minutes and throwing objects at council members. Enforcement against those actions would first require a warning, followed by a potential ban for the remainder of the meeting and, potentially, a misdemeanor charge.

Resident Terry Koken — who sometimes sings his criticism — commented that he would "refrain from cussing, except for [B.S.]."

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger then asked him to sing some Lynyrd Skynyrd, to which Koken replied: "I don't do Lynyrd Skynyrd."

Resident Charlie Mooney posed a scenario: If everyone laughed at a joke except the mayor, could he deem the act an official disruption and boot out the joke teller? What if the laughing was only for a short time at a bad joke?

"Do you have a joke?" Mayor Jim Righeimer asked in reply. "Come on, try a joke."

"I wish I had one," Mooney replied, "but I'm serious. I'm trying to figure out what constitutes a disruption."

John Stephens, an attorney and member of the Pension Oversight Committee, said the ordinance could have a "chilling effect" on free speech and expression.

Leece agreed.

"We're putting our residents on notice as, 'You better think twice because you might be arrested.' I just do not support this," she said.

She added that the ordinance was too specific and could be used "arbitrarily" by whichever mayor is presiding at the time. She also suggested the "old-fashioned" method — using a gavel to regain order.

Righeimer then retrieved one from inside the dais and tapped it.

Mensinger joked that the gavel was "a great idea."

"Either that or a gigantic pan," he said.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis had concerns about limiting speakers' loud voices when at the podium.

"Sometimes people come to the podium and they get excited," she said.

Deputy City Atty. Elena Gerli stressed that the ordinance addresses only inappropriate conduct — not the content of speech — that would lead to a meeting's disruption.

"The conduct has to actually disrupt the meeting before the person can be ordered to cease and potentially be barred from the meeting," she said.

City officials said the ordinance, prepared by the city attorney's office, was the result of a recent appellate court decision that ruled that Costa Mesa's municipal code was unconstitutional and "over-broad on its face" because it prohibited a substantial amount of non-disruptive, protected speech and "expressive conduct."

The code had banned "personal, impertinent, profane, insolent or slanderous remarks" during public comment periods.

The court decision was made in the Acosta vs. City of Costa Mesa lawsuit, which stemmed from a January 2006 council meeting when Benito Acosta was escorted out of the council chambers. Acosta, who also goes by Coyotl Tezcatlipoca, was critical of then-Mayor Allan Mansoor's proposal for Costa Mesa police to enforce federal immigration laws.

From the podium, Acosta attempted to rally support from the audience as Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist had done earlier that evening. Mansoor, now assemblyman for the 74th District, said the act was not "going to happen" and then abruptly called for a recess. Acosta continued talking and was eventually escorted out by police.

The appellate court eventually ruled that Acosta's free-speech rights were not violated.

Mensinger said the ordinance will help the avoid "another Acosta"-type lawsuit.

For Mike Bargas, a longtime resident and coach at Estancia High School, the key to appropriate conduct at City Hall is to "not be a turd."

It's wrong to see the middle finger and "B.S. word" in the council chambers, he said.

"I'd be embarrassed to bring my kids right here," Bargas said. "That's why I stopped bringing them to City Council meetings, because people are not respectful."

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