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Publication Date: Friday, May 18, 2001

Code of behavior would be a hit against free speech Code of behavior would be a hit against free speech (May 18, 2001)

Last week Mountain View had every reason to believe that Mayor Mario Ambra showed an anomalous lapse of judgment in seeking to punish Council member Rosemary Stasek after she criticized Microsoft's decision not to contribute to the county's housing trust fund.

Unfortunately, the incident appears to be the start of a crusade by the mayor and a few of his colleagues to police the opinions of other city officials.

Ambra and Council members Ralph Faravelli and Matt Pear, who together make up the council's Procedures Committee, have drafted a code of behavior for commission, board and committee members which they plan to present to the full council in the next month or so. In addition to various general-and helpful-guidelines about treating colleagues with respect, it contains another striking provision: that members of advisory bodies should "not criticize staff, other advisory bodies or the council in public."

Far from being a guideline promoting civility, as its authors have described it, the code, by incorporating this one provision, instead threatens to be a powerful tool for stifling unpopular views within city government.

Anyone who doubts this should consider comments by the city attorney and the members of the Procedures Committee that show just how arbitrary enforcement of the code promises to be. Not one of the four officials could satisfactorily explain why they held different views of Centennial Committee member Robyn Holst's conduct at an April meeting, in which she decried Stasek's request for contributions to the housing trust fund as "extortion," and Parks Commissioner Greg Perry's outspoken criticism of the proposed recreation center. Faravelli gave the most complete answer, offering that Holst had something "important" to say, while Perry was merely "out of line." The distinction, clearly, lies with content and nothing else-a distinction that is unacceptable as a criterion for policy making in a society that prizes free speech as a cornerstone of government.

Although the draft makes no mention of punishment, Faravelli has said he wants a "three strikes" provision that would allow the council to remove a commissioner after three behavioral offenses. As draconian as such a provision would be, the guidelines as they stand do something much worse. By driving criticism behind closed doors, they render overt punishment unnecessary by creating the threat of intimidation in private. Dissenting commissioners, knowing that they may be harassed by council members for their opinions, will think twice about speaking their minds, and what now occurs in the open before public bodies will occur either not at all or over lunch or on the phone, where the public can have no say in its own business.

Mountain View has a tradition of appointing commissioners with divergent views - a tradition that recognizes the importance of criticism as an engine for new policy. If the guidelines go into effect as they are, they will rob the city of an effective mechanism for change. As for the encouragement of collegial interaction, commissioners already receive adequate advice in the handbook currently provided by the city at the beginning of their terms.

While consensus politics may work for some things, this is not one of them. Now is the time for other council members to speak up and declare this new set of guidelines a step in the wrong direction, toward the quashing of independent thought and away from effective governance.


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