The Signal Hill City Council is asking for written public comments on a proposed “manual of procedural guidelines” that outlines a code of conduct for elected and appointed city officials and establishes a “legally appropriate” set of rules for Council and commission meetings.
The Council at its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 6 unanimously agreed to postpone voting on the comprehensive, 37-page manual drafted by City Attorney David Aleshire and city staff and, instead, solicit written comments on the guidelines for the next two weeks.
The manual is available online on the City’s website and in printed form at the Signal Hill municipal library. The public is asked to submit written comments, whether through email, regular mail or in person, to the city clerk by Jan. 23.
The Council also agreed to schedule a one-hour public workshop on Feb. 17 to discuss a revised version of the manual that Aleshire would draft, taking into account the public comments and suggested changes from Council members.
The public will have an opportunity to make additional comments during the study session, which will take place at 6pm prior to the regular Council meeting. A final version of the document is expected to come back for Council approval in March.
“It’s important we get more input and we put some more work into this,” said Signal Hill Mayor Edward Wilson. “I brought this forward, and I’m eager to adopt this, but I’d rather adopt something that we all agree with than to adopt something just to adopt it on a time basis.”
The proposal comes after the Council, at Wilson’s request, directed city staff in October to create a “code of civility and conduct” for elected and appointed city officials following an incident involving Vice Mayor Larry Forester making “offensive” remarks about race to a resident at a Signal Hill restaurant.
During the Council meeting on Oct. 21, Signal Hill resident Andrea Webster said she filed a complaint with the City after being confronted by Forester at the restaurant because she is opposed to a charter school being located in the City. Webster, who is black, claimed that Forester said she is “prejudice [sic] against your own kind.”
The Conservation Corps of Long Beach, of which Forester is a board member, has since withdrawn its charter-school proposal after public meetings about the organization’s request for permits drew criticism from members of the community concerned about traffic and public-safety impacts.
The proposal for a code of conduct was initially intended to come up with a way to “censure” a councilmember for acting inappropriately, such as blocking a councilmember from obtaining the title of mayor or vice mayor.
During the Council meeting this week, however, Aleshire acknowledged that the manual was expanded to include guidelines for Council and commission meetings since the City was already planning on drafting such a document.
Some residents, however, objected to Aleshire’s comprehensive manual.
Signal Hill resident Maria Harris, speaking for resident and former councilmember Carol Churchill in writing, said the proposed manual “goes far beyond” what the Council initially requested, attempts to amend the City Charter without a vote of the people, gives the city manager extra powers and limits free speech of the public and city officials.
In addition, Harris stated that, under the guidelines, the mayor or commission chair would have the discretion to arrest and remove an audience member from the Council Chamber for disrupting a meeting based on descriptions of conduct that she called “arbitrary.”
The manual in question includes a list of “examples” of remarks or behavior that would be deemed disruptive to a legislative-body meeting, including “unauthorized remarks from the audience, stamping of feet, whistles, yells, outbursts, catcalls, cursing, applause and offensive or obscene gestures or similar demonstrations that disrupt, disturb or otherwise impede the legislative-body proceedings,” according to the document.
The manual also notes that “interrupting speakers, calling members of the audience names, extended discussion of irrelevancies, physical threats, shouting into the microphone, dumping items or garbage on the floor of the Chamber where the proceeding is held, speaking too long, being unduly repetitious, constant interruptions, and interruption of a meeting to make ‘objections'” would also be considered disruptive.
In contrast, the manual’s examples of non-disruptive conduct includes: “silent gestures by members of the audience, such as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down or salutes that are not otherwise disruptive of the meeting; catcalls or booing during a time allowed for applause that does not otherwise disrupt the meeting; and criticisms of public officials or staff during a time reserved for public comment that does not otherwise violate Council procedures and does not disrupt the meeting.”
Signal Hill resident Gloria Nava echoed concerns expressed by Harris, stating that the guidelines for Council and commission meetings are “overbroad” and go beyond the practices of Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary procedures that go back to the 1800s.
“So this list scares me,” Nava said. “How will these actions be interpreted by the mayor? I certainly don’t want to go to jail for applauding at an inappropriate time.”
Aleshire, however, said the proposed guidelines are what have been deemed “legally appropriate” in the State of California for conducting legislative-body meetings. He said his law firm drafted the same manual for other cities, taking into account government codes, Robert’s Rules of Order, the Brown Act and specific case law.
Aleshire pointed out that, unbeknownst to a majority of mayors he counsels, courts have determined that giving a Nazi salute is not considered a disruption to a meeting and would not give a mayor the right to remove an individual from the Council Chamber.
“We’ve had cases that have clarified what is disruptive versus disrespectful,” he said. “Just because somebody is disrespectful does not mean they are disrupting the meeting. There’s language now that goes into some detail, giving examples of one versus the other.”
Furthermore, Aleshire pointed out that, even though Signal Hill has enjoyed a “pretty calm and respectful environment” over the years during Council and commission meetings, issues might arise in the future that may call for legal direction.
“The public has a little bit misunderstood the background and intent,” he said. “The intent is to give Council members some good standards for guidance so that we don’t get into these problems. I, as a lawyer, feel better having a set of written rules that I know are legally appropriate and which give me the opportunity in counseling Council members to help them understand these lines, which can be very surprising to Council members, and that’s really why they’re here.”
The Council agreed, however, that the code of conduct for elected and appointed city officials should be “highlighted” better by either being brought to the front of the document or included in a separate document.
Additionally, Councilmember Lori Woods and Councilmember Tina Hansen both said there should be more discussion on whether to include a three-minute time limit for public comment and a five-minute time limit for public hearings, as proposed in the manual, or have it be left up to the discretion of the elected or appointed official leading the meeting.
Hansen said the manual was not intended to limit free speech, but it was intended to provide the Council and commissions with legal guidelines on how to conduct meetings.
“We can’t curtail speech, and we’re not here to curtail speech, but we also have a job to make sure the meeting can reach a conclusion,” she said. “And, if it ever gets to a point where the audience doesn’t allow it to reach a conclusion, then that’s when I think these rules would take effect.”
Other Council highlights
Presentations Mayor Wilson presented the City’s 2014 Sustainability Award to EDCO, a recycling company in Signal Hill. The Signal Hill Sustainability Committee selected the company for its household hazardous waste-management program. A short video about the program was presented during the Council meeting. In addition, Wilson presented various awards to community volunteers for their assistance in 2014.
Water-treatment plant The Council voted unanimously (5-0) to enter into a contract with Tetra Tech, Inc. to provide a 30-percent design for a project to build an advanced water-treatment plant at Well No. 9. The contract is not to exceed $167,500. The Council also authorized a budget adjustment of $200,000 from the City’s water-fund reserves for the project.
New business In new business, Councilmember Michael Noll requested that city staff look into the possibility of developing a memorial bench and tree program that would provide the community with a way to honor departed loved ones by erecting a bench or planting a tree in their memory.
The next Signal Hill Council meeting is scheduled for 7pm on Tuesday, Jan. 20 at the Council Chamber.
Signal Hill Council asks for public comments on code of conduct 'manual' for meetings, city officials