In most cities, citizens who address the governing council need only muster enough courage to state their opinion on a subject in front of a roomful of other people.
In Mission Viejo, it helps to have courtroom training as well. That’s because citizens who address the Mission Viejo City Council are afterward subjected to rigorous questioning by the five council members, two of whom are lawyers.
Even the council’s own staff members are subjected to this rigorous cross-examination. At a meeting last year, for instance, several members of the public winced as Clint Sherrod, the city’s new planning director, was grilled on what he knew about a proposed mental health center.
Sherrod, who had been on the job just a few days when this questioning was conducted, was forced to concede that he knew very little. That did not dissuade the City Council from pressing him further, however.
Councilman Robert A. Curtis, one of the lawyers, has said that the reason for the intensive questioning of anyone who addresses the council is “to have give-and-take. I am stimulated by the give-and-take of opinions.”
But such exchanges can sometimes be an intimidating experience for residents who may fear public speaking in the first place, not to mention being barraged with questions that some believe are designed to trip them up.
Although this questioning has been a regular feature of council meetings since Mission Viejo was incorporated March 31, 1988, it became so intense at a January debate over proposed annexation of adjoining Aegean Hills that some residents were later moved to cry foul.
“I felt this was a kingdom and we were the subjects,” Mission Viejo resident Eileen Fallman, who was among those questioned, complained to the council at a Feb. 13 meeting. “I felt when I was speaking that I was hurried along in what I was saying. Concerns of the residents should be heard a little more politely.”
Fallman told council members at the meeting that many citizens were becoming too afraid to approach the council for fear that they would be exposed to ridicule through questioning. For many, speaking in public is a terrifying experience in itself, she said.
Some members of the council, visibly embarrassed over the public tongue-lashing, offered sheepish apologies.
“I plead guilty to having lost a sense of professionalism at times,” Councilwoman Victoria C. Jaffe said. “There is no justification for it. I apologize and appreciate your reminder.”
Mayor William S. Craycraft said: “I would apologize on my behalf. It was not my intention” to upset speakers.
And Mayor Pro tem Christian W. Keena, the other lawyer on the council, added: “We need to draw the line between questioning and cross-examination. We want people to come forward.”
Curtis, one of the most rigorous questioners, offered no apologies.
“I like the manner in which we conduct question-and-answer, so the public can not only make a statement, but be involved in stimulating give-and-take,” he said.
Fallman, however, was exempted from that give-and-take. After standing resolutely at the podium, she was allowed to sit back down without any questioning.