Los Angeles Gadflies on Fire
As Councilman Tom LaBonge looked down at the comment cards for item 15 on March 23, he may have felt a sense of dread creeping in.
He read the names out loud: "Arnold Sachs, John Walsh, and Mr. ... Bonge? Is there a person Bonge here?"
Some jokester, no doubt. After that came Zuma Dogg. Another gadfly. They were all gadflies.
"Today's item on the agenda," droned Arnold Sachs, a stickler for procedure, "only mentions the downtown stadium and the event center. What about the new [convention center] hall? What's going on?"
"Point of order," said John Walsh, speaking next, his arms waving about like some mad conductor. "You just voted unanimously on 12 and 13. Garcetti wasn't at his desk! Is one and one three now? Mr. Clerk!"
"Mr. President," interjected the city clerk, "he's not talking about this item."
"Please talk to the issue," LaBonge admonished.
"Don't worry, you'll keep your job," Walsh spat at the clerk. "Hollywood highlands dot org ...," he said, plugging his blog and website.
"Mr. Walsh, thank you."
"I've got three more seconds left!"
"Hollywood highlands dot org. You're garbage!" retorted Walsh, surrendering the podium.
"Thank you," LaBonge said. "Mr. Bonge was next, then Mr. Dogg."
Matt Dowd, an aging hippie from New Zealand, ambled up and corrected: "The name's La Bong," drawing a few chuckles.
After Dowd came co-conspirator Zuma Dogg (né David Saltsburg), dressed in his trademark black shirt and black knit hat reading "Zuma Dogg."
"In case you're just tuning in on a channel surf, my name's Zuma Dogg, legendary, historic, political icon, voice of the people, prophet. Also mayoral candidate. When the city cannot provide services, cannot provide fire statistics, they're getting sued over cracks in the sidewalk, now we want to spend $100,000, not for anything ..."
Dogg, though overcaffeinated, managed to string together a number of issues vexing the City Council. When time ran out, the city's Channel 35 cameras cut away to Richard Hopp, waiting in the empty Van Nuys Council Chambers, where Valleyites attend City Hall meetings vicariously.
Just then, Dogg interjected a bizarre trumpet sound, distorting the audio equipment. "Sergeant," LaBonge said, "please inform the speaker not to yell like that and break the equipment."
"How dare you talk to me like that?" said Hopp in Van Nuys.
"Richard, I'm not talking to you ...," LaBonge said despondently.
"Excuse me!" Hopp shouted. "I'm speaking now! How dare you! Behave yourself!"
This interaction between politicians and gadflies can be seen thrice weekly — more if you count the Board of Supervisors, LAUSD board and Metro board.
In a new twist this week, a gadfly made headlines after he retorted "Heil Hitler!" to Councilman LaBonge, and in response to that, Councilman Paul Koretz jumped in to dramatically claim he wanted to "clock" the gadfly.
The incident was widely misreported. It's fairly clear that LaBonge illegally stopped the gadfly, Michael Carreon, from citing out loud the individual names of City Council members whom Carreon was upset with for ignoring the testimony of a firefighter from United Firefighters of Los Angeles regarding devastating budget cuts by the City Council. In fact, politicians cannot quell such speech.
Carreon was saying into the microphone: "I sit here as the [United Firefighters of Los Angeles] fireman speaks, and Mr. Parks is in a book, Ms. Perry is not paying attention, Mr. Zine is having a conversation, Mr. Cardenas is talking to his staff —" when Councilman LaBonge suddenly shut Carreon's microphone down, accusing him of breaking "the rules" by not speaking directly to LaBonge.
Carreon furiously replied: "Maybe the chair should learn what the responsibilities and obligations are to sit on that chair! ... The nerve of you! ... The city is going to hell in a hand-basket and you're gonna sit up there and dictate! ... I guess I'll just salute you: Heil Hitler!"
Paul Koretz then jumped in, saying Carreon had been inappropriate and asking LaBonge to do something. LaBonge then dragged in a lawyer from the City Attorney's Office, demanding a legal "ruling" on whether he could do anything about Carreon's comment.
Koretz went on to decry Nazi Germany and say he wanted to "clock" Carreon for his Hitler retort to LaBonge. Then gay City Councilman Bill Rosendahl jumped in to say that gays were also victims of the Nazis — and that Carreon had made "an outrageous statement" as well as an "immoral" one.
Carreon's point, that the City Council slashed the Los Angeles Fire Department budget and now City Council members were ignoring testimony about specific examples of unsafe situations caused by those cuts, got lost in media coverage of this incident.
The 1953 Ralph M. Brown Act mandates that elected officials conduct business in public, and that the public has a right to be heard. "If I lived in New York City," says Walsh, who's from New York, "I would never get within a block of the mayor. The public sits there with their thumb up their ass."
Here, Walsh is free to publicly accuse the mayor, to his face, of being a junkie, as he did at a Metro meeting years ago; or, more recently, to accuse another elected official of having an extramarital affair (Walsh has produced no evidence).
But it was probably the chaos over Item 15 on March 23 that caused Councilman Bill Rosendahl to declare: "Gadflies have taken over the agenda. They have seized every item, they're constantly mentioning their websites. Add to that, some of them are verbally abusive."
When L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed consolidating public comments, in part to reduce the time used by gadflies, he was widely derided. His own blog site says the plan is "on hold."
"It would have only affected a small number of people," says Joel Bellman, a top Yaroslavsky aide.
Rosendahl has asked City Council President Herb Wesson to dream up a gadfly-abatement ordinance, but "Mr. Wesson has no plans to create an ordinance," emails a Wesson aide. "Mr. Wesson encourages speakers to conduct themselves in a respectful manner, and will continue to do so."
When the City Council discusses a big issue, such as the proposed football stadium or the widely pilloried gerrymandering of council district boundaries, hundreds of citizens turn up. Each fills out a comment card and gets two minutes. They must stick to the topic and cannot curse but can say whatever they like. This being America, they don't even have to give their real name.
On lesser matters, often the only commenters are gadflies — like Sachs, Dowd, Zuma Dogg and the inimitable Walsh, who dislikes "gadfly" — meaning a pest.
"I'm a pest like testicular cancer's a pest," he spouts. "They lump me together with Arnold Sachs, a homeless Jew. What the fuck is a homeless Jew? I thought that was what Israel was for."
The term gadfly goes back to Socrates, who, while on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, said, "I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you."
Athens needed him, Socrates argued, to point out its inadequacies. The jury disagreed, and he was sentenced to death.
At City Hall in Van Nuys, gadflies include Rick Nightingale, an elderly Republican who favors speeches about illegal immigration. As angry as he seems at the podium, he can be kind in conversation. But he once asked Councilman Eric Garcetti to "step outside" after Garcetti called him a racist.
Donna Pearman and Miriam Fogler are present, too; their comments vacillate between incisive and utterly confused.
Raphael Sonenshein, a government expert at California State L.A., says gadflies "often have an unusual level of expertise, especially on rules and procedures, and they can often correct a public official on that."
Gadflies can do far more. Walsh in the 1990s dug up scandals involving shoddy construction of the Red Line subway, often backed by documents leaked to him from deep within Metro. His scoops helped delay construction and led to improvements on the Red Line.
Nowadays, Walsh has an iPad and enjoys a far less cordial relationship with members of the press, whom he excoriates in emails written in all capital letters.
Says Walsh's friend and HollywoodHighlands.org co-blogger Miki Jackson, "He's putting on a bit of a show, but his information is good." (Both Walsh and Dogg admit to exaggerating their performances in order to attract attention.)
Many at City Hall feel that the gadflies monopolize government time. Avak Keotahian has worked for the city 34 years and has seen gadflies from General Hersheybar, a Vietnam vet, to the articulate Leonard Shapiro, who ran for mayor. He says the current crop is so bad it's "preventing the city government from efficiently functioning."
Retorts Jackson: "People get inside the government and they decide they're royalty. They have these long meetings, and they talk and talk and talk — and they feel resentful because people have two minutes."
What got to Rosendahl finally was the insults. Dogg, a sometime-karaoke DJ with decent talent, does a derisory, funny impression of Rosendahl's frenetic way of chirruping, "Great! Great! Great! Great! Great!"
"We have to sit there, day in and day out, with them yelling at us, calling us names," Rosendahl says.
"Our founding fathers would be appalled," Keotahian says. "I don't see them preserving any kind of First Amendment rights."
But Steven Rhode, a First Amendment lawyer who has represented Dogg and Dowd, begs to differ: "I have read and reread the First Amendment, and I haven't found the section that says free speech only applies to ordinary people."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.