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The San Fernando "Council Minority" Speaks Out In Opposition to Decorum Ordinance PDF Print E-mail
Written by Diana Martinez, Editor   
Thursday, 24 May 2012 05:02

ALEX GARCIA/SFVS

Maribel Medina of the law firm Meyers Nave, San Fernando's new city attorney, drew up the controversial ordinance.

It's been a frustrating and unexpected experience for city council members Antonio Lopez and Sylvia Ballin. When they were first encouraged to run for seats on San Fernando's city council, they had the full support of those on the dais whom they are currently serving with, but now, it's those same people they find themselves strongly opposing.

Lopez and Ballin's latest outrage is the 3-2 passage of a decorum ordinance put in motion by the council majority's voting block.

With only two votes between them, they have been unable to override the voting block of Mayor Esqueda, Councilman Mario Hernandez and Councilwoman Maribel De La Torre, the council majority who residents have been working diligently to unseat in yet another upcoming recall election.

The trio, making up a council majority, have been exposed: They are at the center of a string of scandal and controversy that has included conflict of interest votes, admitted extramarital affairs and Brown Act violations. But still they are persisting in holding on firmly to their council chairs and are giving no indication of plans to step down.

Councilwoman Maribel De La Torre, who is often regarded as the leader of the trio, previously proclaimed from her council chair that she wasn't going to go down without a fight. Although the fight she has is with local residents whom she claims to represent and the same residents who have clearly expressed at each council meeting since last November that they "want them [the council majority] gone."

The latest move by the council majority is the decorum ordinance which Lopez and Ballin maintain is not only dangerously punitive for residents but may be unconstitutional, placing the city at risk for another lawsuit, in a string of lawsuits, against the financially strapped city.

The ordinance limits free speech by preventing residents from speaking on items that are not on the council agenda but removes them from the council chambers after given warnings if their language is considered too "personal" or out of line . The ordinance fails to adequately outline what is and isn't acceptable decorum and gives the council full reign to be the word police.

It was also noted by council observers on Monday that while the ordinance had not yet passed, the council majority was already enforcing it. Mayor Esqueda told a resident that he could not direct his comments to her personally and had to address the full council. And, while residents attempted to address the council during public comments, Councilman Mario Hernandez instead of listening to residents, rolled his chair next to Mayor Esqueda and engaged her in conversation.

"This isn't the fault of the residents. Respect goes both ways," said Lopez, who pointed out that from the dais the council [majority] have called residents names and hurled angry and very heated accusations against them. Council members, Lopez said, haven't extended decorum to residents.

"Council members have confronted residents when they are speaking. They should wait and address residents during council comments. We have procedures already in place that are sufficient. Both council members and residents need to be respected and the council needs to be responsible," Lopez said.

Lopez told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that before the next council meeting either he or Ballin will be placing the issue back on the council agenda preventing the council majority from waltzing the ordinance through on the consent calendar which is the council majority's expected plan. Lopez said after the council majority announced the passage of the ordinance, they failed to explain to residents that the ordinance still requires a second reading and if approved it would take another 30 days before taking effect.

"It's really unfortunate that there is lack of respect given to the residents," Lopez said. "It's not just what they [the council majority] did Monday, but what has gone on for some time. They may think that fining someone isn't a big deal, but it is a big deal," he said.

"I would never restrict residents' freedom of speech, I can never support this. There will be a second reading and I hope residents will come out. This ordinance should not go forward."

Councilwoman Sylvia Ballin questions why the ordinance was drawn up by the city's new attorney in the first place. She said she believes residents have been within their rights to express outrage to the city council.

"The residents were pushed over the edge when Mario Hernandez, former Mayor made the motion to bring back acting chief Tony Ruelas after his admitted affair with a young cadet. The community refused to sit quietly and accept his return," Ballin said.

Ballin believes despite Mayor Esqueda's claim that the motivation for the ordinance is to "Restore respect to the chambers," it's an obvious and offensive attempt to snuff out residents' rightful criticism.

"The chaos and disrespect has escalated in the chamber over the last several months due to the actions of the council. The residents have a right to voice their disgust, feelings of betrayal, and disillusionment. My question is who directed the city attorney to come up with a very punitive ordinance?" Ballin said.

She asked this same question during the council meeting but did not receive an answer. Following the council meeting, during a phone interview, The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol attempted to repeat the question to Attorney Medina. Who specifically on the council or at city hall instructed her to draw up the ordinance? But, Medina would not address the question and instead attempted to divert the question and turn the conversation to the matter of the city's budget. The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol repeated the same question to her four times, but was met each time by silence. With much persisting, Medina would only provide a general answer to the question by saying, "The council wanted a safe environment for residents." When the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol attempted to continue the conversation, Medina ended the conversation by saying that she had another call she had to take.

Medina, currently with the Los Angeles law firm of Meyers Nave, previously worked with Attorney Michael Estrada, of Richards, Watson & Gershon the firm that contracted with the city for many years, but was recently not renewed as counsel to San Fernando.

Ballin said she opposed Medina's hire because she was the most expensive and least experienced from the pool of attorneys interviewed. She pointed out that given her lack of experience and the city's financial status, it made no sense to hire her especially at a higher rate.

While at Richards, Watson & Gershon, Medina worked as a deputy or assistant attorney and while at this firm did some work for the city of San Fernando.

Ballin has raised concerns over the council majority's practice to keep her out of the loop of information with recent hires and other major city business. She said that Lopez, perhaps because he also has not fallen in lock step with the council majority, has also been deliberately kept in the dark.

She said she was not made aware of discussions held upon the hiring of the acting police chief Gil Carrillo and it appeared that both Carrillo and now attorney Medina have been put in place by the council majority to be part of their team. The expediency by Medina, in only her second meeting as the city attorney, to readily serve up the decorum ordinance Monday, solidified that point of view for Ballin and many residents.

Recall Attorney Sends A Letter of Concern to the City

Attorney George Yin representing the San Fernando Residents and Businesses United to Recall City Council members Hernandez, Esqueda and De La Torre reviewed the audio recording of the May 7 city council meeting. In a letter addressed to the city, Medina and councilmembers, Yin gave many examples of residents being improperly silenced. The letter reads:

"Mr. Paul Martinez made statements that were critical of the city council stating that he was fed up with the city council's behavior and that he wanted the city council majority to step down, the city Attorney[Medina] interrupted Mr. Martinez and he was given one warning, and when Mr. Martinez defended his right to speak by saying 'give me another,' Mr. Martinez was cut off and prevented from speaking further."

"Ms. Margie Carranza made statements that the city is going through a major process and that the situation at the city was chaotic. Ms Carranza never once mentioned the words election. Rather, Ms. Carranza merely expressed her dissatisfaction with the way the city was being run. Nevertheless, Ms Carranza was interrupted by City Attorney Medina and told that she could not continue."

"Mr. Paulino Guevara stated that he came back to the city council because he wanted certain members to understand that they were causing pain, suffering and financial distress to the city's residents. He questioned the values and compassion of certain members of the city council and he asked those members to step down. Again, the city attorney interrupted and declared that such statements were not permitted subjects during the public comment period, and again he was given a warning. Mr. Guevara's statements did not mention any election, nor was he being unruly or profane. Rather he had a concern as a resident expressing disappointment and criticism with his elected leaders and being told that he could not speak."

Yin, in the letter , referred to the council's action as "egregious examples of the city council abusing its authority and seriously mistating the law."

He warned the city council and the city attorney that they are subjecting the city to costly litigation and wrote that he considered the council conduct to be outrageous and unacceptable.

"You took the even more extraordinary step of silencing any speaker making any statement that falls within the realm of criticism to the city, city council members, the city attorney or the way the city is being administered. Your actions are intolerable in a free democracy and the city council and city attorney are well advised to cease behaving in such a dictatorial, intimidating and illegal manner," Yin wrote.

For a related story, see As The City Turns, Page 10

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