Friday, January 22, 2021

Cd'A plans to muzzle public comments

by DAVID LYONS/Guest opinion
| January 2, 2021 1:00 AM

Your taxes pay the salaries of city officials. So they’re “public servants,” right? They work for you, right?

Wrong. Top city officials are plotting to muzzle you — to take away your First Amendment right to publicly criticize how they do their job.

They’ve come up with a written “policy” to prevent you from criticizing any city officials and policymakers during “public comment” at any city meeting. And they tried to sneak it through on the City Council’s “consent” calendar — where no debate is allowed.

Fortunately, Councilman Dan Gookin stopped that, so the “policy” will be openly debated at the Jan. 5 City Council meeting.

You can find the policy — 16 Rules long — in the agenda packet for the Dec. 21 General Services Committee meeting, and you can watch those three committee members (Gookin, McEvers and Miller) discuss it at that meeting — on the city website.

Lots of the policy is bad — meant to have a “chilling effect” on the public’s willingness to speak at city meetings.

But the worst part is Rule 13 — which would prohibit you from criticizing ANY city official at ANY city meeting. Federal courts have repeatedly held that such a blanket prohibition on referring to city officials violates the First Amendment and is illegal.

You need to show up at the Jan. 5 council meeting and tell your elected representatives what you think — at public comment — and watch what they say.

Citizens’ right to criticize their government and public officials lies at the heart of the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has stressed its breadth, noting this country’s:

“[P]rofound national commitment to the principle that debate on public policy issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964).

But the “swamp creatures” in city government don’t care about your First Amendment rights. They care about protecting themselves — from criticism and embarrassment.

Rule 13 is not limited to disciplinary-type complaints about, say, a clerk or office worker who mishandled something — everyone agrees those can be handled privately.

Rather, Rule 13 would apply to ALL criticisms of and policy disagreements with ALL senior, management level, policy-making city officials — the people who run the city. But that’s the essence of local government debate.

The city has several “appointive officers” — senior policymakers, including the city attorney, city treasurer, and city clerk, who by statute and city code must be bonded and are difficult to remove from office.

Under Rule 13, they are all immune from “public comment.”

And there are other department heads and policymakers, such as the planning director, city administrator, comptroller, city engineer, and the like.

Under Rule 13, they are all immune from “public comment.”

Civil, evidence-based debate about city policy and management of city affairs is at the heart of local politics and protected by the First Amendment.

Rule 13 would muzzle that.

City officials are not protected from embarrassment over poor policies or performance — rather, it is deserved.

If city officials don’t want public scrutiny, they can get a job in the private sector. But they’ve chosen to earn their paychecks by doing the public’s business — so they are subject to the public scrutiny that comes with the job.

Show up at the Jan. 5 City Council meeting and let the council members know what you think — at public comment. Watch what they say and how they vote.

And remember come election time.

David Lyons is a Coeur d'Alene resident.