By Donna Westfall – March 30, 2017 – December 15, 1791 was a most memorial day in the history of the United States. It was the day that we adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The framers of the Constitution remembered the bad old days when the King of England could have a person imprisoned for saying anything that could be considered a criticism of the crown. The First Amendment guaranteed that this would not be tolerated in a free society. The right to say anything you wanted, and to petition for a government redress of grievances would be guaranteed forever.
Now fast forward some 226 years to present day and we find out that the Chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, Chris Howard aided by Supervisor Hemmingsen would like to take away your freedom of speech rights and made the attempt at the last board meeting held March 28th.
Here’s what happened. During the public comment period, anyone in the audience has the opportunity to speak for 3 minutes on any topic. Several speakers had spoken, then Linda Sutter, a resident of Del Norte County, began by detailing how she thought Supervisor Cowan had been self serving in her votes on the board and Sutter said she was going to begin a Recall Petition. At that moment Supervisor Hemmingsen said, “cut the microphone” followed by Chairman Howard who ordered the microphone to be turned off, which was done.
At that point the chairman turned to the county counsel for clarification. The county council then stated “you can’t make statements attacking a supervisor.” Whereupon the speaker was told to step away from the microphone and she took her seat in the audience.
I got up and after introducing myself, I looked at Supervisor Cowan and said I was going to support a recall. At that point, I was interrupted by Chair Howard (view the video), turned to County Counsel and said, “It’s my understanding that anyone can talk about anything under the sun during 3 minute public comment.”
She agreed. I continued and when finished, left the meeting.
After another speaker had spoken, the county counsel again took the microphone and stated, “If there is anyone in the audience who feels they were not heard? We do not want you to feel that way.”
It would seem that the county counsel contradicted her previous ruling, finally realizing that Chairman Howard was dealing with a freedom of speech issue and that the constitution of the United States guaranteed Sutter’s and Westfall’s right to continue.
At that point Linda Sutter was offered the opportunity to resume her presentation with the microphone turned back on.
People have the right to demand redress of grievances, to have their voices heard in a public forum, even in Del Norte County, and to be respected by the chairman of the board, even if that speech is uncomfortable for a member of that board.
One only has to look at the nightly news to see that freedom of speech is alive and well at many of the town hall meetings held by congressmen. Many in the audience attempt to shout down the speaker, much of it with language unfit for young children, but even this is allowed and even encouraged by our system of government. It’s one of the ways we use to promote change in a democratic society.
When we attempt to stifle a citizens right to speak to their representatives, we are no better than petty dictatorships in third world countries.
Supervisors Howard and Hemmingsen, I hope you learned a valuable lesson. Because if you haven’t, the next step we’re taking (Sutter and Westfall) is to request a Cease and Desist letter from our District Attorney, Dale Trigg. From now on we will treat you like ants under a magnifying glass. You persist like this and you’re going to get fried. Not only will the ACLU have you under a microscope, but now we’re working with the Coalition of 1st Amendment Rights. So, if there is anything to be found in government codes, or criminal codes, we will find it.
Please take this suggestion to heart: re-read the constitution and the Brown Act. I guarantee we will not stop until you start treating the public with more respect AND abide by the law of our land. You’re not above being recalled either.