Council passes a resolution to reset the button on decorum and civility at public meetings


The City Council unanimously endorsed at the September 17 meeting a resolution designed to stop personal attacks at public meetings on or by city staff, members of the council and the public.

Mayor Bob Whalen consulted with City Manager John Pietig and City Attorney Philip Kohn in the preparation of the resolution as proposed at the meeting. Additions to the resolution were added following comments by the public that the policy appeared biased toward public officials and did not have enough “teeth.”

“It [proposed policy] does not authorize the mayor/presiding officer/chair to determine non-adherence of the decorum rules by the elected; instead issuance and enforcement gets left to a majority of the council governing body,” said MJ Abraham. “Frankly, this is the equivalent of suggesting a police officer should have a powwow with two other officers before issuing a ticket.”

Abraham said she had been informed that staff was responsible for developing the policy, which was reviewed by Mayor Bob Whalen.

“Well staff got it wrong,” said Abraham.

In response to public comments, the council added wording to the policy, to be brought back for its approval.

--Members of the public while attending a public meeting shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charge, or verbal attack on the character of city officials.

--The presiding officer shall be responsible for maintaining decorum and civility at public meetings and enforcing the Rules of Decorum in a uniform and even-handed manner, and may intervene to ensure that no city council member interrupt members of the public while at the podium.

--City officials who interrupt and repeatedly do not adhere to the rules may be reprimanded by the presiding official or formally censured by a majority of the body to which the offending official is a member.

Fifteen members of the audience spoke at the hearing, some of them referring to the raucous hearing in April on the graphic on police cars, a tipping point for them. 

“MJ has been working on this since March,” said Michele Monda, who spoke at the hearing against what she said have been personal attacks on her by Councilman Peter Blake, rather than addressing her policy issues.

“This bullying, intimidation, and threats have done nothing but show his ‘mean girl’ tactics,” said Monda. “This is not proper behavior from an elected official to constituents and deflects attention from policy issues. 

“I support the existing municipal code that specifically addresses conduct of public officials and I support the conduct policy that helps strengthen its enforcement and serves to get us back on the right track and free of bullying.”

Monda included in her testimony comments allegedly made by Blake online and on social media.

It should be noted that the policy approved by the council also applies to electronic and written communications from those acting in city official capacity.

Councilman Peter Blake didn’t back down.

“I own everything I have ever said,” reiterated Blake. “I take back nothing.”

Councilwoman Toni Iseman, often at odds with Blake, said she would stop meetings for five minutes if someone on the dais belittled a speaker or, made rude remarks. 

“When people tell me they are afraid to come to the council meetings, I fear for the future of Laguna,” said Iseman. 

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow, a devote adherent of the First Amendment, said it was sad to have to institute some form of censorship, but necessary, based on public comments on the street and at the meeting.

Speakers who wanted more control in the policy over outbursts by a council member said Whalen should have taken more definitive action in the past.

“I am not going to defend my actions,” said Whalen. “Could I have done more – maybe. But I am not looking back. I am looking forward.

“I am responsible for enforcing the rules. As for censure, the council can’t do it on the spot. It will be brought back at the next meeting.”

“We need to reset the button and go back to the way we were,” said Councilwoman Sue Kempf.