Arroyo Grande council adopts contested letter writing rules
May 25, 2016
On a 3-2 vote, the Arroyo Grande City Council adopted a resolution requiring council members to inform one another when they author letters using city resources. Critics have said the rule violates the First Amendment.
Council members must now copy all of their colleagues, as well as the city manager, city attorney and city clerk when they send correspondence using city resources. Correspondence includes letters or emails to citizens, businesses or public agencies.
Additionally, the resolution requires council members to clearly articulate the council’s adopted policy position when fulfilling a public speaking engagement. Council members are allowed, though, to indicate that their individual position differs from the stance adopted by the council, the resolution states.
There are no penalties for violating the rules contained in the resolution.
On Tuesday night, council members Kristen Barneich, Jim Guthrie and Barbara Harmon voted in favor of the resolution. Mayor Jim Hill and council member Tim Brown cast the dissenting votes.
“We are supposed to work as a team, believe it or not. It is a best practice,” Harmon said.
Guthrie said the council communication discussion was an issue of transparency.
Both Hill and Brown voiced concerns about sharing all communication with every member of the council. They said it could be problematic because it could be used to influence decisions without public scrutiny.
Brown also said he does not plan to make any changes in the way he communicates.
“This is much to do about nothing in a political year,” Brown said.
Hill said the issue was a distraction that was taking staff resources away from more pressing issues like medical marijuana.
A dispute over council communications arose when Harmon chastised Hill for a letter he sent to the Federal Trade Commission. In the letter, Hill outlined concerns about the lengthy closure of the city’s only full-service grocery store. Harmon complained that Hill’s letter conveyed an official city position.
Barneich then asked that the issue be agendized to allow a discussion on implementing council policy on letters written by city council members. In response, City Manager Dianne Thompson drafted an actual resolution for the council to vote on.
Several supporters of Barneich and former Arroyo Grande mayor Tony Ferrara spoke during public comment Tuesday. They criticized Hill for sending the letter to the Federal Trade Commission and argued he sent it on behalf of the whole council.
Supporters of Hill have argued the resolution is unconstitutional. In 2009, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have demonstrated the First Amendment protection for elected officials’s speech is no less strenuous than that afforded to the speech of other citizens.