Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

On Media

by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif

Printable version of this story

LOS ANGELES -- It was a week in which the mayor's appointed Harbor Commission president called the City Controller "unqualified and politically motivated," then questioned her education and fitness to serve.

Earlier, he tore into a local activist at a commission meeting. Meanwhile, off in a subcommittee meeting, one lonely member of the public was told to shut up for using one word. Apparently the chairman found it so horrifyingly offensive that the meeting had to be halted temporarily while the miscreant was cautioned never to talk that way again.

Subject to the high editorial standards of The American Reporter, we'll get to that unacceptable word in a bit, but first a little more about the conduct of public affairs alongside the waterfront.

The exchange between the commission president and the Controller took place in the form of dueling press releases. Controller Laura Chick announced that the port is still not doing its job right, and commission president Nicholas Tonsich faxed his ad hominem attack right back. The exchange was covered in at least five local newspapers and cited by the ever-vigilent LAobserved.com.

The second part of the story is told by Arthur Vinsel of the independent harbor area newspaper Random Lengths in "Pola Budget Fireworks." (The term "Pola" is an acronym for Port of Los Angeles.) "Feelings that have flared for years ignited again, with suggestions that Los Angeles Harbor is polluted by greed and profiteering as well as soot and truck traffic as the Harbor Commission approved a $418 million budget, slashed a whopping 11 percent in one week."

There follows some routine reporting about the budget, and then the fun begins.

Before the commissioners -- some speaking in a so-long-it's-been-good-to-know-you tone since Villaraigosa will replace three or more when he takes office -- had wound up the discussion, verbal sniping broke out.

Longtime Port critic Janet Gunter's icy insinuation that Commission President Nicholas Tonsich is profiting from his part-ownership of an air pollution technology company drew a bitter rejoinder.

"What about your air quality emissions program, Mr. Tonsich," Gunter prodded. "Dipping into that a little are we?"

"I don't stand on the sidelines and criticize," snapped Tonsich. "What do you do? Look at your properties on Sixth Street. They're the blight of San Pedro!"

It sounds like quite the brouhaha. Commission Vice President Elwood Lui joined the show by attacking local activist Noel Park, accusing him of being anti-development. Noel gave as good as he got. I'm kind of sorry I missed the show.

Apparently this level of discourse is politically acceptable in the waning days of the James Hahn administration. Actually, at one level I kind of like it. Down here in the harbor, you get feedback when you criticize. Sometimes it's positive, sometimes it's not. Most government boards just sit glumly and listen quietly, giving little in return.

Even when remarks get testy, as they did here, we might profitably view it as our exercise of self government. Citizens are supposed to have the right to question and criticize those who govern them. It can be useful even when it is painful, perplexing, and even offensive to those who have to take it. The president of the Harbor Commission was accused wrongly perhaps, but the fact that a private citizen could speak this way to a public official speaks volumes. In the bad old days it would have sent a Soviet citizen to the Gulag, but all that happened here was that the beleaguered board president got a little hot under the collar himself.

Lightning didn't strike, the KGB didn't batter down the door, and commission business went on.

I should give disclosure here and point out that I consider myself to be a friend and political colleague of both Gunter and Park, and I serve on a neighborhood council board with Park as of July 1.

Many states guarantee citizens the right to confront their government officials directly. In California, the Ralph M. Brown Act protects the robust exchange of views: "The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body." In other words, you have the right to go to a government meeting and tell the officials off. You can question their qualifications, their motives, their performance and even their personal demeanor. That's what Gunter was doing to Tonsich at the commission meeting, while Tonsich was doing the same thing to Controller Chick using a slightly different forum.

The Brown Act and the California Constitution affirmatively create the right to freedom of speech. They don't limit this guarantee to polite speech or nice speech or speech that agrees with my views, but to speech.

The courts have taken the concept pretty far, even by my admittedly civil-libertarian views. In Cohen vs California (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court defended the right of a young man to appear in a local courthouse with a manifestly profane slogan ("F... the draft") on his jacket. Justice Harlan writing for the majority pointed out that when it comes to freedom of expression, the rude, inarticulate amateur has equal status with the rhetorical stylist:

That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, these fundamental societal values are truly implicated. That is why "wholly neutral futilities ... come under the protection of free speech as fully as do Keats' poems or Donne's sermons," and why "so long as the means are peaceful, the communication need not meet standards of acceptability."

I love reading such noble thoughts couched in such elegant phrases; myself, I'm stuck with typing that freedom of speech means freedom of speech. It's settled law, and that's supposed to be that.

And then came the meeting of the Port Community Advisory Committee. The pcac, as it is abbreviated, is an official subcommittee of the Harbor Commission. Its members and officers are appointed by the Harbor Commission and are, therefore, acting as part of the city government. Their function is to represent the interests of the local community. At least they are supposed to.

The pcac has been very involved in air quality issues because the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach together contribute one-fourth of all the toxic diesel pollution in the Los Angeles basin. This pollution is now known to be harmful to health and deadly to some people.

On Tuesday, June 21, 2005, the pcac took up an agenda item that would have set a policy of great importance. It was a complicated motion, but in essence it called on the port to set aside its new development projects for a month or two in order to finish and enact a plan to bring air pollution under control. The motion itself was a little complicated, but at the core it represented a cry of despair from the doctors and activists who have watched the emissions numbers accumulate.

There was a bit of parliamentary maneuvering: The board first took up a substitute motion that was thought to be more palatable to business and labor interests. After brief debate, the motion passed by a vote of 18 to 9. Under parliamentary rules, the seemingly popular substitute was now up for final approval. In custom and tradition, passage of a substitute motion by a wide margin indicates almost sure passage in final form. After all, if you are willing to vote for it now, you ought to be willing to vote for it five minutes from now.

That's not what happened. The motion failed by a vote of 13 to 14. Somehow, five people who voted for the exact same motion in the beginning switched and voted against it.

People were visibly shocked. The community's own representatives had voted for death and development over life and discretion.

And that was the end of the agenda, except for the public comment period, and that's where that terrifying word I promised to tell you about was uttered to the pcac board.

A member of the public took his term at the podium and said, "Well, good evening, wimps." He got out half of his next sentence, which dealt with a technical issue about environmental impact reporting, but was never allowed to finish.

A member of the pcac board interrupted, protesting that he was offended by the use of the word "wimps." (Ironically, he was not the target of the word, since he had been consistent in his opposition.) The chairman apologized to the board member and instructed the public speaker to refrain from making any more such comments. When the speaker did not immediately apologize for his exercise of free speech, the chairman stopped him from speaking any further, in spite of the fact that the Brown Act, the California Constitution and the Bill of Rights are still in existence.

Apparently when it comes to the Port of Los Angeles, it's OK for the President and other members of the Harbor Commission to do all sorts of name calling in a public meeting, but members of the public are not allowed to give public criticism in the port's most important subcommittee.

I suspect that the pcac board members forgot that in their role as members of the city government, they are obliged to allow critical public comment. They don't have to listen -- they could have covered their ears or walked out of the room -- but they are required to allow the speaker to have his three minutes under our American system of freedom of expression.

I must give further disclosure here and reveal that the speaker who uttered that word "wimp" was me. I must confess that it was spoken in the heat of the moment, in sincere outrage. Even then it was a bit flippant. Perhaps wimps wasn't the perfect rejoinder. Perhaps I could have done better; "Good evening, apologists for lung cancer" might have been more appropriate, but as Justice Harlan pointed out, we are not all poets or prose stylists, and we communicate as best we can.

And now, one final explanation. This column is titled On Media, as my long-suffering editor has repeatedly explained to me, so you may wonder what this story has to do with the topic. Here is my answer:

The American Reporter has allowed me to share my thoughts with its readership for the past two years and close to 100 columns. Twenty years ago, this column would not have been possible, and short of my owning a newspaper chain, you would not be reading this account. The creation of Websites such as The American Reporter and now the proliferation of blogging are all making for a new world of reporting.

They have their ups and downs for sure, but this may be the last, best hope for people like me to "petition for redress of grievances," as our most sacred national document guarantees.

And as for the Port of Los Angeles, they sure can dish it out, but can they take it?

Editor's Note: Our commitment to the First Amendment runs a lot deeper than our commitment to column titles, Bob. Give 'em hell!

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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