L.A. City Council wants less buzz from its swarm of gadflies

After a string of disruptions during Los Angeles City Council meetings, several members are considering changes in the rules that govern when the public can speak, as well as how the proceedings are televised.

Council President Herb Wesson said one proposal would move the public comment period — when people are given two minutes to speak — to the end of the meeting. Another idea broached by Councilman Paul Koretz would do away with the longtime practice of airing council meetings on the city’s government access television channel.

On Wednesday, Koretz complained that in recent years the meetings “have become kind of a circus,” with public speakers sometimes shouting obscenities and causing other disruptions that he said “diverts attention from the real business of the city.” He said many speakers come only to advance their own causes and get on television, and he isn’t sure whether the cost of airing council meetings is worth it.

“I think they may qualify more as entertainment,” Koretz said. “But as a city that’s $200 million in the hole, I don’t think our core mission is entertainment.”

Koretz made news the day before when he said he was tempted to “clock” a speaker who called out “Heil Hitler” during a council meeting. The man who gave the Nazi salute, Michael Carreon, later offered to take his dispute with Koretz outside.

City Hall attracts a revolving cast of political gadflies who show up at council meetings to share their thoughts on a variety of issues. Some, like El Sereno resident Clyde Williams, are exceedingly polite. Others seem to view the provocation of council members as a kind of sport.

David “Zuma Dogg” Saltsburg, who started coming to the meetings to complain about an ordinance designed to regulate performers and vendors along the Venice Beach boardwalk, chronicles his council exploits on a blog that promises “performance, politics and parody.”

He has been ejected from meetings many times for outbursts that are deemed disruptive, and he has filed a lawsuit against the city arguing that the council’s rules of decorum are unfair. “I get a little bit loud,” he said. “But excuse me, that’s what the 1st Amendment is for.”

He and another council regular, Hollywood activist John Walsh, often promote their websites during the public comment period. Councilman Dennis Zine said self-promotion isn’t the point of public comment. “They’re not talking to us, they’re talking to the camera, to the television audience,” he said.

Matt Dowd, another Venice Beach activist, said the comment period is a critical part of the democratic process, and is a chance for residents to tell lawmakers what is actually going on. “Basically it’s a witness stand and you can deliver your testimony,” he said.

He and Saltsburg were both involved in spats with council members during Tuesday’s meeting.

One came during the public comment portion on an item about a business improvement district in downtown Los Angeles. When Wesson told Saltsburg to stay on the topic of the item at hand, Saltsburg exploded in screams and shook his hand at the council president.

“You can point at me all you want,” Wesson told him. “Don’t let this suit fool you.”

Wesson later said he regretted his comments, which Saltsburg said qualified as a threat.

“I spoke out of school,” Wesson said. “Emotions are high on both sides, council members included.”

Wesson said changes in the public comment process are “high on the totem pole” of his priorities, and he stressed that whatever the council does, free speech will be protected.

Earlier this year, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky dropped a proposal to limit the number of times public speakers could address the Board of Supervisors during meetings after an outcry from free speech activists.