By Laura Ferguson, city councilmember
San Clemente is a great community, because the people have the best interests of everyone at heart. We are better together, which is why I promote engagement and welcome residents to attend council meetings. Unfortunately, the most recent city council meeting on April 16 was a dark day in our democracy that struck a troubling blow against free speech. I have been asked by residents to explain what happened.
Free expression, including criticism, is at the heart of our democracy. It’s been an established rule that during a council meeting the public has two opportunities to speak during public comments sessions, at the beginning and near the end. For as long as anyone can remember, individuals have been able to express their comments twice—each time limited to three minutes. Mayor Steve Swartz decided at this council meeting that he no longer wanted to hear from a particular citizen activist twice. So, at the tail end of the meeting, he announced a new rule that residents could now speak only at one of the oral communications sessions.
When I voiced my concern that this action could not be taken unilaterally, I began to cite an example in which another elected board had taken the legal steps to change their speaking rules, and I was talked over and not allowed to finish my point of how to obey the law to change the rules. The mayor did not show concern for my defense of a citizen who I believed was having his free speech violated. The mayor dismissed me: “You can do what you want. That’s it!” I then announced that I was leaving the meeting because “we are quashing public speech.”
The mayor proceeded to read the rules for public speaking—rules that are outdated and have never been enforced. He then ordered the mass removal of everyone in the chamber, “exit, leave and clear the room.” When a resident called out, “We can’t be removed; we’ve done nothing wrong,” the city attorney began to provide comments before the mayor interrupted him and ordered the public to leave. The mayor ordered the sheriff’s deputies to refuse entry to the public, who would have to stand outside in the cold, unless they stated that they would “abide” by the mayor’s rules.
While laws appear to have been violated by the mayor’s actions, he also showed a total disregard of our public’s basic political freedoms protected under the Bill of Rights. The right not to be removed from a public meeting without cause and not be forced to make some pledge to regain entrance.
When the meeting resumed, a citizen addressed council and was interrupted three times, as the mayor said he could not address an individual councilmember and would have to address the entire council. The council learned in February, when another citizen felt his rights to address an individual councilmember were being violated, that the law allows this. The council’s policy was revised and was in effect on April 16.
I call for our city to get back to the business of addressing community issues. It has been a month and a half since the council directed the city manager to execute a plan for sheltered beds for the homeless. Although it has been reported out of “closed session” that this is underway, law enforcement still cannot enforce the city’s anti-camping laws. When there is no option for sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize people for sleeping outdoors on public property without exception.
The longer we go without a solution, the longer we have the potential to pose a public health and safety risk for the homeless and the public. It is time our council allows this to be a public discussion, because under the Brown Act, the public has the right to participate. And we just might solve this problem—together.
Laura Ferguson is a San Clemente City Councilmember who was elected in 2018.