Gadflies who like to antagonize elected officials at public meetings and often get kicked out as a result may soon be facing criminal citations for trespassing as a result of a City Council motion passed Wednesday, according to a city councilman.
“Oftentimes we have a lot of disruptions during the meetings where we have to remove particular speakers. These are the same people over and over that come in each and every day, in every committee meeting, to disrupt the meeting in the same form and fashion,” City Councilman Mitchell Englander told City News Service.
“Lately, what they have done is continue to disrupt the meeting by yelling in from the hallway and so we need a way to be safe and secure, and so that the people that are here are safe and secure, and we can do the people’s business. It’s not an `or,’ it’s an `and.”‘
A handful of speakers at City Hall meetings are often kicked out for making noises in the audience, waving their hands or refusing to stop talking once their allotted time is up. Someone being removed from a council meeting is a regular occurrence. Some of these same speakers have also used profane language and obscene gestures or racially offensive costumes during their speaking time.
The motion, which directs the city attorney’s office to draft an ordinance, was approved with a 13-0 vote and seeks to have the speakers arrested or cited for trespassing if they disrupt the meeting and refuse to leave, Englander said. Under California law, trespassing can typically be charged as a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
“We need a way to show that they have been asked to leave the facility, so we need to make sure to codify that trespass and actually charge them if need be, or at least let them know if they don’t leave it could be a trespass,” Englander said. “And right now we don’t have that without the ordinance. So this gives us another tool in our tool belt to make sure we can do the people’s business without interruption.”
However, Vanessa Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Council President Herb Wesson, said that despite Englander’s interpretation, the ordinance would not apply to public meetings, so that a person who refused to leave a public meeting could not be charged, but once they have been removed from the meeting and then refused to leave the building or some other public space, they could be charged.
“The trespassing ordinance would not apply to disturbances in public meetings. The intent of the policy is to provide the keys needed to enforce existing rules of decorum for non-public gathering disturbances,” Rodriguez said.
Wesson presented the motion and it was seconded by Englander and Councilwoman Nury Martinez.
Englander said the trespass law typically requires a sign to be posted at a facility stating that if a person is asked to leave and refuses, that person can be cited for trespassing. He said council members put signs up in their district offices two years ago after the city attorney advised them they were needed for someone to be in violation of trespassing laws.
Englander said it would be up to police officers to decide if someone was violating the law and up to the city attorney if signs are needed at City Hall.
“You won’t get a trespass because you are asked to leave a meeting, but if you continue to disrupt the meeting or continue to disrupt the activities and the public activities of this building, then that could be considered a trespass,” Englander said. “It could be — it’s called a wobbler. It’s not `you shall be arrested,’ it’s `you may be and can be.”‘
The motion is just the latest in an ongoing conflict the council has had with public speakers who push the boundaries of decorum. The conflicts often lead to bizarre interactions in which a council member in the middle of a serious conversation about city issues must pause to admonish a member of the audience to stop playing with a puppet or to stop making animal noises.
An Encino lawyer, Wayne Spindler, was arrested last year after he submitted a comment card with Ku Klux Klan imagery and a racial slur on it that Council President Herb Wesson said he took as a threat, although the district attorney declined to charge Spindler. Spindler later filed a federal lawsuit against the city over the incident.
Spindler was also charged last week by the Los Angeles city attorney for illegal possession of a firearm. Wesson sought and received a restraining order against Spindler, and as a result of the order, Spindler had to turn in all his firearms to the police department. Among the weapons was an unregistered and illegal AK-47 assault rifle, according to the city attorney’s office.
Another frequent guest speaker who is often ejected from meetings, Armondo Herman, brought a box cutter to a Public Safety Committee hearing last year, although he was not arrested when police discovered it. He was ejected after he refused to stop dancing in the aisles while holding a doll adorned in a KKK outfit.
A man in 2014 received a $215,000 legal settlement with the city after being ejected from a meeting for wearing a KKK hood. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell also last year secured a temporary a restraining order against the man, Michael Hunt, but a permanent restraining order was denied by a judge, the Los Angeles Daily News reported.
Herman spoke at Wednesday’s meeting in opposition of the motion.
“We the public object. We object because you are in violation of our constitutional right to free speech and expression,” Herman said.
— City News Service