Merritt Holloway is almost famous. The 50-year-old Los Angeles tailor and choir director can be seen once a week on TV, testifying in front of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on a host of issues. On some days he is disheveled, unkempt and a little wild-looking, and it’s hard to follow anything he says. Other days he’s dressed to the nines, almost flashy, and remarkably poised and articulate. But in one aspect he is the model of consistency. He is never, ever, at a loss for words. Now county Supervisor Gloria Molina is making it her personal mission to shut him up.
Last year Holloway became a more or less permanent part of the weekly ritual that is the Board of Supervisors’ Tuesday meeting when he began signing up to speak on pretty much every matter that the board had before it. With an agenda that usually has 50 to 60 items, and with Holloway taking his full three minutes of allotted time on each, that would come to around two to three hours every Tuesday of nothing but Merritt Holloway. So the board restricted him to three minutes total, each week. Holloway now has become an expert at cramming as many critiques, comments, complaints and allegations as possible into his three-minute window. But for Molina, three minutes a week of Merritt Holloway apparently is still too much. A liberal Democrat, Molina brands Holloway as so disruptive to the orderly flow of the meetings that he should be banned from the boardroom for 90 days at a time.
The eccentric gadfly is fighting back, and he has behind him a host of free-speech and open-government advocates who insist that, unlikely as it may seem, he is protecting all county residents and their constitutional rights to speak, petition their government, and keep tabs on their board. The only supervisor who seems unabashedly on his side is Mike Antonovich, a conservative Republican who doggedly defends the public’s right to address the board.
Let’s back up a minute. The Board of Supervisors governs a county with a $14 billion budget and a population larger than all but seven states. It runs the nation’s largest child-welfare system, the huge Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office, an enormous but crippled medical and public-health system, and the usual array of services like libraries, parks, road maintenance, animal control and the like. Public meetings are scheduled for Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m., although the five supervisors rarely show up much before 10. They make presentations and have their photos taken, and then it’s down to business. The clerk reads the agenda, and except for the half-dozen or so items that the supervisors want to debate, they approve every contract, motion or report all at once, without comment.
Here’s where Holloway comes in. Because he signs up to speak to the board on every item, the supervisors have to call him to the speaker’s chair and let him have his three minutes before moving to their blanket approval. It can be irritating, especially when he criticizes supervisors by name or questions their integrity. It is especially irksome when he uses an agenda item on, say, waiving parking fees for a youth group’s concert at the Music Center, to talk about what’s really on his mind: the loss of his 2-year-old son to the county Department of Children and Family Services.
The board already has a rule that permits it to exclude a member of the public for 90 days for being disruptive. Now, in an innovative motion set for hearing on January 27, Molina is seeking to, in effect, define Holloway as disruptive because he signs up to speak so much.
“He comes . . . with the intent to disrupt the meetings and makes a mockery of the county and its proceedings,” Molina spokesman Miguel Santana explained.
Molina is due to meet with a group of free-speech advocates who are trying to get her to drop the plan. But it wasn’t just Molina who was on Holloway’s case last fall when the board voted to limit him to three minutes per meeting. Zev Yaroslavsky, another liberal Democrat and usually the board’s staunchest First Amendment advocate, took the anti-Holloway campaign in a whole new direction, insisting that the board keep him and other public speakers quiet because they were racially inflammatory. But in addition to worrying about the content of Holloway’s comments, Yaroslavsky underscored Molina’s assertion that time limits were crucial so that the board could “get to our business.”
Currently, the whole process for Holloway — calling out his agenda items, allowing him to speak, and bickering with him over whether he has exceeded his time — takes about five minutes.
The board often devotes up to two hours of meeting time to public- and community-relations matters that in most governmental bodies take place in the officials’ offices, on their own time, when members of the public are not sitting in the audience waiting to speak. On January 13, for example, after an invocation and the pledge of allegiance, Yaroslavsky presented a scroll to the Association of Trauma Managers of Los Angeles County, then read a speech, then posed for photos. Don Knabe presented scrolls to four county police officers for spotting a fire at an apartment complex and telling the residents to leave. First came his speech. Then individual photos of each officer with their chief, the fire chief, and Knabe. Then a speech by the police chief. Then one by the county personnel director. Then a group photo with the supervisor, the two chiefs, and the four officers getting the scroll. Then the photographer had the two guys on the right move over to the left. More photos.
Then a representative of the Walt Disney Company came in with someone in a huge rubber Mickey Mouse suit to pose for photos in honor of the cartoon character’s 75th birthday as Mike Antonovich read a biography of the mouse, presented a proclamation and posed with his two children, the mouse and the Disney rep. Then a speech by the Disney rep. Then there was a presentation to a Court of Appeals justice, in honor of his retirement. Biography. Photos. Speech. More photos. Several minutes of reminiscing between Antonovich and the justice, off the microphone, while the audience sat and waited. Then presentations to firefighters for, in essence, doing their jobs, and presentations, one at a time with scrolls, speeches and photos, to about two dozen girls for winning scholarships. Then Antonovich presented a cat for adoption from the county shelter. Then later, in the middle of the meeting, motions to adjourn in honor of various deceased family members, political supporters and a baseball player. Two hours shot. But just three long minutes for Merritt Holloway.
Among the disruptions that Holloway generally crams in are a request to adjourn instead in memory of children “murdered, molested and abused while under the jurisdiction of the DCFS,” the county child-welfare agency. News reports over the last three years have confirmed that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children have died or suffered abuse while in county care. Holloway also questions why he should have to pay for parking when he goes to children’s court, while the county routinely waives parking fees — crucial revenue — for various groups. He also questions why the county is targeting him for special punitive treatment for simply requesting to speak to the board on every item it considers.
He sometimes rambles and stumbles, and usually rushes, but he also has interesting observations. On January 13, before health director Thomas Garthwaite was to give his latest report on how to handle the fiasco that is King/Drew Medical Center, Holloway noted that Garthwaite “don’t know how to speak ’hood. King is full of ’hood conversation, and when you got some white person going over there who don’t got no game, they see him coming.”
Except for the racial reference, that very same point was at the heart of a heated debate a week earlier between Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke over King/Drew’s future. The two supervisors talked over one another, interrupted and, at one point, yelled. In a year of county supervisor meetings, it was the only instance anyone could recall that anything, including Merritt Holloway, could be considered disruptive.