Laguna Beach repeals municipal code section criminalizing certain language

Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen and council members Toni Iseman and George Weiss on the dais.
Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen and council members Toni Iseman and George Weiss on the dais at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting in the Council Chambers.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach has repealed a section of its municipal code that called for the criminalization of the use of certain speech at City Council meetings.

The Laguna Beach City Council unanimously approved the motion to repeal the section in question Tuesday night, albeit not without some anticipated fireworks. The timing of the ordinance review was questioned by some due to its proximity to the censure of Councilman Peter Blake last month.

Phil Kohn, the city attorney, said the agenda item was brought forward because the provision of the code being discussed was deemed to have been rendered invalid and unenforceable by statutes and federal court of appeal cases that had come along since its adoption in 1953.

Responding to a question from Councilman George Weiss about how enforcement would be levied for the use of foul language going forward, Kohn said, “The key feature of this municipal code provision is that it makes the use of certain language criminal.

“It does not say that it is not otherwise redressable through other means, and in the case of the city, it is redressable through the rules of decorum and the civility policy, which apply not only to public officials, but to members of the public, as well.”

Anne Caenn, the president of Village Laguna, opened the public comment portion of the discussion by expressing her surprise at the repeal.

“Coming on the heels of the Councilman Blake censure raises questions about why, after almost 70 years, council is now considering a repeal,” Caenn said. “Perhaps instead of a repeal, a revision of this municipal code should be considered.”

Resident Michele Monda took issue with the section of the municipal code coming up for review by itself, requesting that all city ordinances be reviewed.

“You are not even giving the appearance of trying to clean up outdated ordinances by just cherry-picking this one,” Monda said. “What’s the purpose of that?”

Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said the subject of the municipal code section came up a few months ago. When it was determined the criminalization of “profane, vulgar or boisterous” language was unenforceable, Whalen said he asked for it to be removed from the code.

“It got in the normal queue of things to get done, and it came here tonight,” Whalen said. “Completely unrelated to the censure, nothing to do with it. Anybody who wants to advocate for leaving on the books a provision that’s unlawful on its face, I don’t understand that. I won’t support it.

“I’m going to vote to take this off. It had nothing to do with Peter. You can’t have unlawful provisions in your code.”

Although the motion passed on a 5-0 vote, Councilwoman Toni Iseman and Weiss made it clear they were unenthusiastic in casting their votes of approval. Iseman had been the target of derisive comments made by Blake prior to his being censured by the council last month.

With the council meeting in person for the first time since meetings went virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, a seating chart was made for the council members. Iseman expressed relief that she would not be seated next to Blake.

“I’m not the same as a result of your behavior, and I’m just hoping that from this point forward, we can come to this council and not have to worry about you,” Iseman said to Blake, who participated in this week’s meeting virtually. “As soon as I got here, I looked at the seating chart and I thought, ‘I don’t have to sit by Peter.’

“The public has also taken the hits, and this has to stop. It’s a remarkable coincidence that we’re dealing with this [municipal code change] tonight, and maybe the reasonable thing would be to come up with something that would be not from the [19]50s, but from this year, that addresses this conduct.”

Blake appeared to take exception to the repeal being used as an opportunity to revisit the censure, saying that he was “becoming the punching bag” again for the second time in a month.

“Let’s face it,” Blake said. “This is politics. It’s cancel culture. It’s Village Laguna’s attempt to suppress me. It’s not going anywhere. You can censure me. You can do whatever you want. Nothing’s going to change. It’s going to get 10 times worse. Mark my words.”

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