Glendale leaders are set to review a proposal to place restrictions on who government officials can talk to on city time, a move 1st Amendment advocates say raises serious free speech concerns.
The call for tighter controls has its roots in a long-simmering tiff between the City Council and some of its regular commentators. The tension increased last week when a group of residents alleged Barry Allen, who some call a gadfly and others a city watchdog, had been convicted of running a counterfeiting operation in the mid 1980s.
Allen — who acknowledged the charge, but claimed he was working undercover for a federal agency — often criticizes city leaders and holds weekly forums to discuss municipal finances, water-rate increases and other issues. He’s used his weekly newsletter to traffic in gossip and to air officials’ dirty laundry, some true, some off-base.
The revelation surprised city leaders and prompted Councilman Ara Najarian to ask staff at the council meeting if there was a way to bar officials from talking to Allen, his Vanguardian group, or others connected to criminal activities.
“A few weeks ago I sarcastically congratulated some of our department heads and a captain of our police force for attending and hosting or being the keynote speaker at one of Barry Allen’s forums,” Najarian said. “I find that to be a huge problem and at this point forward a dereliction of the duty of the City Council to have this continue.”
City Attorney Mike Garcia said he will be working with the City Manager’s office to draft a report on the proposal. The report would be discussed at a future council meeting, but there is no set date.
“Translating the desire to avoid talking to ‘known crooks’ into viable, constitutionally sound policy is probably impossible,” said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group.
Francke said the council does have the authority to set policy on the use of employees’ time, but the issue at hand may not be known criminals..
“Most people would probably agree that the government's biggest problems do not trace to ‘known’ crooks, but to those unknown, both outside and inside city hall,” he said.
Bill Weisman, who is also a traffic commissioner, has been leading the attack against Allen. Weisman created a website, www.barryallenfacts.com, that repeat many of the claims he and others made at last week’s council meeting. At the meeting, a number of people read newspaper articles regarding a counterfeiting operation in Michigan. Allen, then called Allen B. Silvarman, and a partner were arrested after the Secret Service seized $335,000 in counterfeit bills in March 1985.
Allen confirmed the arrest, but said he working undercover for the Defense Intelligence Agency. However, a spokesman said the DIA had no record of an Allen B. Silvarman or Barry Allen working for the agency.
“The chances are very good they would deny it,” Allen said. “It was 30 years ago. Unfortunately no one [from back then] is around.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons states Allen was released from federal custody in July 1986, but Allen denies spending time in prison. Though newspaper articles at the time say he pleaded guilty to the charges, Allen declined to confirm this Monday.
After the meeting, Mayor Laura Friedman said she understood Najarian’s concerns, saying that sending staff to talk to the Vanguardians gives Allen legitimacy.
“I think it’s going to be a very fine line,” Friedman said about setting a new policy. “It’s our responsibility to converse with the public, but it’s also our responsibility to ensure they are protected.”
Councilman Rafi Manoukian, who has attended Allen’s meetings, said he believed barring staff from talking to the public could be unconstitutional. He also defended staff who had met with Allen’s group.
“They performed their jobs as they’re supposed to in terms of relaying the information to the community and to community members,” Manoukian said, speaking from the council dias.
Peter Scheer, executive director of First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting free speech, said if the city pursued this policy, it would have to be neutral on its face and in its motivation. People don’t have a constitutional right to speak to or be heard by government employees, he said, however introducing a policy that targets a particular organization would raise “serious problems.”
“Government can’t play favorites,” Scheer said.