AG council considers speech restraint
May 23, 2016
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A verbal joust over the limits of individual free speech looms Tuesday when the Arroyo Grande City Council meets at 6 p.m.
A recent request by one council member to place on a future agenda a discussion about “council communications” suddenly has morphed into a resolution for adoption prepared by City Manager Dianne Thompson and now is set for action.
“All council member correspondence using city resources shall be copied to the full council, the city manager, the city attorney, and the city clerk,” Thompson writes in the resolution. “In addition, all council correspondence to public agencies in which the mayor or council member identifies themselves as such, shall be copied to the full council.”
The proposal probably runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution. In 2009, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court “demonstrate that the First Amendment’s protection of elected officials’ speech is robust and no less strenuous than that afforded to the speech of citizens in general.”
Any vote by a city council body likely would not invalidate the circuit court’s decision.
The so-called communications matter originated with council member Barbara Harmon after she had chastised Mayor Jim Hill for a letter he sent to the Federal Trade Commission. In that letter, Hill outlined his concerns about the lengthy closure of the city’s only full-service grocery store.
City tax coffers have been severely reduced because of the closure. In the past, grocery stores at the site brought in about $2.4 million per month in revenue, making it one of the city’s top five tax revenue generators.
Harmon complained that Hill’s letter “conveyed an official city position.” Harmon also voiced her concerns that members of the public became aware of the letter before she did, and that the letter demonstrated a “lack of transparency.”
Council member Kristen Barneich asked that the issue be agendized to allow a discussion about implementing council policy on letters written by city council members.
Thompson instead drafted the resolution, and the council will now consider a vote on the matter.