The Monterey City Council exercises its right to rid commissions of free thinkers.
Thursday, January 21, 1999
Tuesday evening, the Monterey City Council voted to expel two experienced and vocal members of the city''s Planning Commission who have openly criticized council decisions. Just two weeks before, the council voted to not re-appoint two experienced and vocal members of the city''s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) who have also openly criticized council decisions.
In light of those actions, some citizens are saying that it doesn''t take a genius to read between the lines and that the council is sending a clear message to its commissions: Tow the party line or hit the road.
"I think that...[the council''s] action will have a very chilling effect on the independence of future appointees," says ousted Planning Commissioner Molly Erickson. "If the mayor''s intention is to squash independent input from the council-appointed advisors, than he will be successful."
In a memo from Mayor Dan Albert to the City Council calling for Erickson''s and former Planning Commissioner Walter Keintzel''s removal, the mayor outlined his reasons for requesting their ouster and also explained his philosophy concerning city commissions.
"Once the council has heard the recommendation of the advisory bodies, they make a decision setting policy or establishing law. Once [a council] decision is made, any effort by commissioners to undermine the council''s decision is damaging to the public process of the city government," the memo states. "It is also disloyal to the City Council that has appointed them."
The memo goes on to call for Keintzel''s and Erickson''s removal based on demonstrated "insubordinate" and "disruptive" behavior. The memo includes charges that both commissioners publicly criticized City Council decisions. Erickson is also charged with appearing at a press conference in support of the National Historic Trust''s listing of Cannery Row as an endangered site last June in which she "attacked past and present policies of the City Council in an insubordinate and negative manner...Her actions were deliberate, calculated, insubordinate, inappropriate and underhanded," the mayor wrote.
In his memo, Albert also references a passage from the city''s board and commission handbook stating: "A good relationship with the City Council is essential. The primary responsibility of commissions, committees and boards is to advise and make recommendations to the City Council. It is the City Council''s role to receive the recommendations made by the commissions, and to consider them as part of its decision making."
That''s ambiguous language at best, and the job description leaves open a mile-wide space for interpretation. Does the commissioner''s role in the democratic process include open debate in public forums? Or, does a commissioner gives up his or her First Amendment rights in order to serve the city?
"No citizen is insubordinate when they are exercising their freedom of speech and freedom to congregate," says Barbara Bass Evans, a local activist and former mayoral candidate who was defeated by Albert in November.
Erickson concurs. "Nowhere does it say that a commissioner''s freedom of speech is constricted," she says. "I''ve never received any instruction that I should not speak out on an issue that is important to me.
"I think a healthy civic dialogue includes a willingness to hear all sides of the issues," she adds, "especially from your appointed officials."
Councilmember Ruth Vreeland agrees that commissioners retain their right to freedom of speech--when speaking as individuals. The council''s concern, she says, is with actions and statements made by Erickson and Keintzel within their roles as public officials. For instance, Vreeland references Erickson''s statement at the Historic Trust press conference when Erickson identified herself as chair of the Planning Commission and made critical comments about council decisions. Those comments, says Vreeland, should be contained within commission meetings.
"There is plenty of opportunity for commissioners to express and present points of view with the council," she says. "You don''t use your role as a commissioner to circumvent the council."
But the line drawn between a commissioner''s role as a public official or as a private citizen inevitably gets muddled--even in the eyes of those who are ostensibly paying attention. For instance, the mayor charges Erickson with criticizing the council''s decision to not re-appoint Judy Lehman and Bob Grimes to the HPC at the Jan. 5 City Council meeting. However, Erickson did in fact identify herself as a private citizen prior to her comments at that meeting.
Some citizens also say that talk of disloyalty and insubordination may simply be masking a larger issue. By axing the commissioners, they say, the city is bowing to pressure from local commercial property owners who wish to quiet informed commissioners doing their jobs.
"If you are a well-informed commissioner and know the land use plans and the California Environmental Quality Act," says Evans, "and you base your decisions on the written documents before you, instead of the opinions of the City Council...then you''re out."
For instance, allegations included in Albert''s memo charge that Erickson and Keintzel "exceeded the scope of [their] office by entering private spaces of the Monterey Plaza Hotel to investigate whether a portion of the hotel was built to the City approved design. [They] had no authority to conduct this investigation..."
That incident resulted in a letter of complaint to the city by John Narigi, the hotel''s vice president and general manager.
However, in a Jan. 19 letter to the council and mayor from Monterey Peninsula League of Women Voter''s President Lorita Fisher, Fisher points out that city code does give commissioners the authority to conduct such investigations.
"In addition, Sec. 26-7B states: ''In performance of their functions, Planning Commission personnel may enter upon any land and make examinations and surveys, provided that such entries, examinations and surveys do not interfere with the use of the land by those persons,''" writes Fisher.
Activists and ousted commissioners also say they can''t help but question the timing of the council''s decision to pull the plug on Keintzel and Erickson. The Cannery Row Marketplace, a large and controversial project proposed for construction within the city''s coastal zone, is slated to go before the Planning Commission in two weeks. That project was also slated for a joint study session between the Planning Commission and two other commissions scheduled for Wednesday, the day after the council decision. Coincidence? Some say yes.
"It''s a ludicrous assertion that the city of Monterey would find cause to remove commissioners based on one project," says Doug Thompson, public relations consultant for the Cannery Row Marketplace.
Others say no. "I''ve been there 11 years and I have seen nothing but this thing deteriorate further and further down," says Lehman. "[The councilmembers] are slaves to the business community''s interests."