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Laguna Beach resolution outlines new policies for civility among officials and public

Laguna Beach city council listens to public comment during their Sept. 17 meeting.
The Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday night adopted a resolution drafted by Mayor Bob Whalen that outlines rules for behavior in an effort to promote civility at council and other city meetings.
(Lilly Nguyen)

Amid some officials’ frustration with what they consider a decline in civility at public meetings, the Laguna Beach City Council on Tuesday night unanimously adopted a resolution drafted by Mayor Bob Whalen to set policies for conduct by the public and local officials.

“The city doesn’t currently have a rules of decorum and civility policy. ... I think it’s important to have one,” Whalen said. “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 and have rules ... and set some enforcement.”

The resolution, drafted with City Manager John Pietig and City Attorney Philip Kohn, outlines a specific set of policies on decorum that will apply to all City Council members, members of city staff, boards, commissions and committees, and members of the public engaging with city officials.

The rules also will apply to electronic or written communications from officials acting on behalf of the city.

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Whalen previously called for more civility in his State of the City address in May, saying recent council meetings had seen an “unprecedented” display of personal attacks intended “to embarrass and intimidate either an elected official or other members of the public who don’t share their point of view.”

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said it’s “really sad ... that we even have to be talking about this.”

“Whether we’re advising to do certain things or enforcing certain things, any time we come out with rules that are effectively constraining how people behave, that’s some form of infringement on freedom, it’s some form of censorship. It’s necessary. We have to do it,” Dicterow said. “But it’s really unfortunate that we’ve reached this point.”

The policies outlined in the resolution say city officials must treat everyone courteously, listen respectfully, exercise self-control, give open-minded consideration to all viewpoints, provide fair and equal treatment to all people and matters before the city, focus on the issues as to not personalize debates and refrain from expressing final opinions or judgments before hearing evidence or testimony at a public meeting.

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Any shouting or physical actions by city officials that could be construed as threatening will not be tolerated, according to the policies.

The public will be expected to abide by similar rules, but in addition cannot engage in “disorderly or boisterous conduct” such as applause, whistling or booing or bring any signs, placards or banners if the presiding officer — the mayor or the chairperson of another city panel — determines they will disrupt a meeting.

Also, members of the public must address the mayor or chairperson unless answering a question from another panel member.

All parties must “embrace respectful disagreement and dissent as democratic rights that are inherent components of an inclusive public process and tools for forging sound decisions and allow all members of the public to speak without intimidation or interruption,” according to a city staff report.

Those who don’t abide by the policies could be removed from city premises, and city officials could be reprimanded or censured.

Critics of the resolution said during public comments that it needs more “teeth” in terms of consequences for city officials.

Whalen said he could have done more to retain civility in the council chamber and that he would take a more active role in directing meetings.

A presiding officer will now be able to intervene to ensure that members of his or her panel don’t interrupt speakers.

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Councilman Peter Blake, who some residents have criticized for his sometimes fiery comments, said: “I think it’s great that we have a code of conduct. ... [But] let’s wake up and realize we’re in 2019 and things have changed. People are not willing to express themselves in any other way than enthusiastically. We have opened that floodgate and I’m all for it.”

“Come on up and bash me all you want,” Blake added. “You want to come up and make comments that in any way disparage me or the staff? Then guess what? You’re going to open yourself up to comments coming back at you.”

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