D.A.: No More Mute Button in Council Meetings

By Anne Lowe

OPEN MEETINGS – The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has told the Carson City Council to cease using a mute button to squelch public commenters during council meetings.

A letter sent to the council said Mayor Jim Dear had used the button, cutting off sound from the public microphone, to silence speakers on at least two occasions because "he did not like what they were saying." The District Attorney’s Office said in the letter that Dear's actions were unconstitutional and violated the Brown Act.

The Daily Breeze reports:

The letter states district attorney's officials are not "convinced that use of a mute button to silence the broadcast of public comment is the least restrictive means by which to accomplish the important governmental interest of orderly and efficient decision-making."

"Were that the case, then a trap door might be a reasonable alternative to the mute button."

Dear did not return calls for comment Wednesday, but City Attorney Bill Wynder said he has not yet carefully reviewed the letter.

"We are studying the opinions of the D.A.'s Office and will comment on them once we've had an opportunity to consider their arguments and the legal authority to back up their arguments," Wynder said.

In February, Wynder defended Dear's use of the button by sending a 10-page letter to the District Attorney's Office arguing that the mayor needed muting power so he can maintain order at meetings. Wynder also pointed out that Carson's leadership is not the only political body to have a mute button on its dais.

The power to mute speakers during public comment first arose as a political issue in Carson after the microphone cutoff was installed in 2005. By 2007, Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes was complaining that Dear was overusing it and he stopped for a while.

On Nov. 4, 2009, the Dear-led council voted 3-2 to reinstate his ability to use the button. That decision followed a heated exchange on Oct. 20 between Dear and Barbara Post, president of the Carousel Homeowners Association and one of the residents who complained about the button.

In December, resident Robert Lesley said he was unfairly muted by Dear. A video of that meeting shows Dear muting Lesley about two minutes into his comment about a 2006 court ruling that said Councilwoman Julie Ruiz Raber could not claim to be a teacher on election ballots because her part-time work as a belly-dancing teacher did not qualify.

Jennifer Lentz Snyder, assistant head deputy district attorney  in the Public Integrity Division, said Dear was wrong to tell speakers that they can't single out a council member or talk about something that is not on that meeting's agenda. She said she hopes the council will eliminate the mayor's ability to use the button.

"You can't regulate public speech by content unless you have a compelling interest," Lentz Snyder said. "You couldn't throw your hand over someone's mouth to stop them from talking. You have to be reasonable. We're troubled by the use of a mute button."

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