Free Speech, Anarchy at Issue in Gadfly War : Politics: Burbank officials believe a novel tactic will persuade critics to speak less at council meetings. The critics are unpersuaded.


It is after midnight on a recent Tuesday. A handful of community activists--who have waited all night to address the City Council--saunters up to the podium.

Several council members, slouched in their chairs and looking bored, do not even acknowledge the first man at the microphone. One councilman checks his watch, another yawns helplessly, as the speaker launches into yet another tirade against alleged widespread corruption in City Hall.

Just another typical Burbank City Council meeting.

Hounded and harassed by gadflies for years, the Burbank City Council has tried numerous times to restrict public comment on non-agenda topics in an effort to discourage verbal attacks and to shorten its seemingly endless meetings.

But critics of the council have repeatedly cried foul.

"The Bill of Rights supersedes the petty whims of council people," said Jules Kimmett, gadfly par excellence and the only member of a group he calls Concerned Citizens of Burbank.

Those seeking the podium often invoke the Constitution when they defend their right to speak at council meetings. But state officials and legal experts say the "right to free speech" at public meetings is a complicated legal issue and can, in fact, be limited by local government agencies.

A 1987 amendment to the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law, requires all local government agencies to set aside time for public comment on any topic. But, Deputy Atty. Gen. Ted Prim said, the law also provides those agencies with the authority to provide "reasonable limits" on the amount of time an individual can speak on agenda and non-agenda items.

Last week the Burbank council backed off from a more stringent limitation and instead voted not to televise the second portion of "oral communications," hoping that would discourage some of the rambling discourses. During this comment period, at the end of each meeting, speakers are allowed to address the council on any topic they choose.

"We're trying to be responsible to the voters and deal with the business of the city," Mayor Robert R. Bowne said in defending the council's action to limit television coverage of its meetings. "What has happened is the direct result of the conduct by 10 or 12 individuals who continually violate the rules of order. I'm not going to allow important business of the city to be taken over by a small group of people bent on anarchy."

Ted McConkey, a member of the Burbank Rancho homeowners group and an outspoken critic of the City Council, disagreed, saying that better decisions are made when the public is allowed to speak and be heard on important issues facing the city. "The whole thing was silly," McConkey said of the council's ruling. "Obviously, they don't like the legitimate comments of the speakers. It's not a question of unfair criticism, but not allowing the public at home to judge for themselves. The real losers are the people of Burbank."

To be sure, Burbank has its share of people who regularly attend City Council meetings and harangue council members and city staff. In addition to Kimmett, who regularly campaigns to recall all five council members, there is Melvin Perlitsh, a longtime critic who has as much trouble sticking to the subject at hand as he has adhering to the five-minute speaking limit; and S. Michael Stavropoulos, a neurosurgeon who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Burbank Board of Education last year and now spends most of his time at council meetings denouncing the board.

All three have been forcibly removed from City Council meetings on numerous occasions for speaking out of order, and both Kimmett and Perlitsh have been arrested for carrying on at school board meetings.

"The truth has a way of irritating people," Kimmett said.

The 1987 amendment to the Brown Act is designed to balance the right of the people to address their elected officials with the need of a government body to get its work done, Prim said. But the problem, according to Prim, is that reasonable limits can be interpreted in different ways.

For example, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, following its own interpretation of the Brown Act in 1987, voted to limit the number of times that an individual may address the supervisors on any topic he chooses. Instead of once a week, a person is now allowed to testify before the board only once every 90 days on non-agenda topics.

In addition, no more than five people may address the board on non-agenda items in any single meeting.

"We think it works pretty well," County Counsel D.W. Clinton said. "You can draw your own conclusions as to why we did it."

In an unusual twist, the Los Angeles Board of Education last week voted to limit the amount of time board members can comment on issues to five minutes per subject in an attempt to shorten their often lengthy meetings.

Given the provisions of the Brown Act, there are various options that cities have employed to limit public comment on topics on and off the agenda. Some cities limit comment to five minutes, others to three minutes. Some municipalities put the public comment period on non-agenda topics at the beginning of the meeting; others, such as Burbank, put it at the end.

In Burbank speakers are allowed to address the council for five minutes at the beginning of each meeting on agenda topics, and three minutes at the end of each meeting on any topic they choose. But the number of speakers is not limited.

Not all government agencies, however, have had to confront the problem. City officials in Glendale, Thousand Oaks and even Los Angeles all say that their meetings run pretty smoothly and that they have not felt the need to limit discussion.

"Really we don't have that kind of problem," said Los Angeles Senior Assistant City Atty. George Buchannan, who advises the Los Angeles City Council. "Sure we have people that stand up and beat the drums and look at the television cameras, but they don't really get belligerent. This council, which has 15 members, is pretty patient with people. I've been here 19 years and I've never seen them turn anybody off."

The allusion to television cameras is not accidental; when the camera starts rolling, existing problems seem to intensify. Bowne said that since the Burbank council began televising its meetings on cable two years ago the gadfly problem has grown worse.

And that was the reason Bowne and two other council members voted to limit coverage of the council's meetings.

But Councilman Tim Murphy, who voted against the measure, said the council should not try to decide what is appropriate for the viewer to watch.

"I feel uncomfortable being associated with censorship," Murphy said. "It seems it would be easier for the viewer, if he is offended, to turn it off, than for the government to take action and pull the plug."

Pomona Mayor Donna Smith, whose city is also known for boisterous public debate, agreed with Bowne that television has probably added to the problem of attracting gadflies. Pomona began broadcasting its meetings on community cable television two years ago.

But, unlike Bowne, Smith thinks that the public would not want the city of Pomona to tamper with television coverage of the meetings.

"It has its pros and cons, but the main thing is we have an informed community," Smith said. "I really don't think the community would allow or want the City Council to pull the plug on any portion of it. It's just too popular here. It's the hottest thing going. I think it's better watched than 'Monday Night Football.' "

But Bowne said he is confident that the council's decision "is a step in the right direction toward conducting City Council meetings in an appropriate manner."

"I want to change the image of our city," Bowne said. "I don't think we want to have our city meetings viewed as some form of cheap entertainment. I really feel we're doing the right thing here."


City Clerk's records on the number of times certain speakers have addressed the Burbank City Council; records are from 28 council meetings, from May to December 1989:

Jules Kimmett -- 20 times during the first oral communications session, taken at the beginning of each council meeting; 17 times times during the second public comment period, taken at the end of every meeting.

Melvin Perlitsh -- 19 times during the first oral communications; 12 times during the second period.

Dave Golonski -- 15 times during first session; 11 times during second session.

S. Michael Stavropoulos -- 11 times during the first oral communications; 10 times during second period.

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