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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The No-Speech Zone of Davis

I watched with horror on the night of June 27, 2006 as the Davis City Council did what I thought was really the unthinkable--they disbanded the Davis Human Relations Commission. Oh yes I know, Stephen Souza tried to convince us that they were really just having a cooling off period. However, that cooling off period included the dismissal of every member of that commission.

In the aftermath of that calamity, the truly scary and shocking fact is the reason that has emerged for this purge. The Chair of the Human Relations Commission publicly opposed a decision of the council. As a private citizen she continued to advocate for civilian review of the police rather than the ombudsman model that the council adopted.

One of the chief concerns was that the Chair publicly opposed the council's decision to create an ombudsman. Saylor was directly asked about this and his basic response was that while individual members have the constitutional right to free speech, that once they become the member of a comission, they are seen by the public as only a member of that commission. In essence, his viewpoint is that the commission should be advisors not activists. Souza held a similar view as he recited at the Council Meeting but also was quoted in the newspaper: "I understand very well (the actions of the HRC)," he said. "There is a passion, but I understand how blind that passion can be. It's when they deviate from their mission. The commissioners are not advocates in the community, they are advisers to the council." Sue Greenwald disagreed with that viewpoint saying in a Davis Enterprise interview, "Commissioners do have a right to carry on political activity outside their role as commissioners." But her viewpoint seems to be in the minority.

The guidelines for commissioners to speak in public seem at best to be a moving target. According to several sources, staff's initial position was that speaking was fine in public and to the media as long as it was clear that the individual spoke on their own behalf. If you do a search of recent statements by the Chair, you will see that indeed she attempted to adhere to those guidelines. In her June 18, 2006 letter to the editor, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald starts out saying, "I write this letter as a private citizen, not as chairwoman of the Davis Human Relations Commission." You can see this in a number of interviews and public speeches at Council Meetings as well.

However, the night that the HRC was dismissed the clear statement from Saylor and the rest of the Council, sans Sue Greenwald, was that a commissioner cannot separate themselves from the public role they hold and can never speak merely as a private citizen.

I certainly am inclined to take the side of Sue Greenwald on this issue--commissioners should be able to carry on political activities, free speech included, as commissioners. However, if it was the view of the council that they should not, that should have been clearly articulated in a written statement in advance. On the eve of destruction, the view of Saylor strikes me as adhoc justification for their actions.

I also have increasing concern about Stephen Souza as a Councilmember. From the July 16, 2006 Davis Enterprise: "Souza himself was a member of the Human Relations Commission from 1989 to 1996. An alleged rape and several other crimes against women spurred the then-Human Relations Commission to recommend a hate-crimes ordinance to the City Council."We pushed the issue three times," Souza said. "The council said 'no' two times. Two former mayors came to the commission and said 'We are the policy-making body. You are the advisers.' "Although Souza said he was miffed at the time, now that he's a councilman, he understands where the two former mayors were coming from."

Souza made similar statements on the night of the council meeting--basically stating that he was wrong to continue to push and he overstepped his bounds. However, Souza was never publicly criticized for his actions. He was not removed from the commission or as chair. I wonder exactly how he justifies a more extreme action by himself.

Moreover, Stephen Souza is wrong. Stephen Souza was a hero in Davis in the mid-90s, leading the charge for reform and justice. He fought the council and he made a difference. He did not take no for an answer and for that reason, today Davis has excellent hate-crimes ordinances.

What happened to the Stephen Souza who was a fighter for human rights and a champion of justice--the Stephen Souza that just two short years ago, I voted for--proudly? He's sold out. He came to the "realization" that he could never get elected to office as a liberal, a progressive, as a champion for the underdog. Now he favors the establishment-- the police, the developers, the man. Souza's tale is a sad one. It is a tale where idealism is sold out in favor of expediency.

It was not long ago when a staffer from State Senator Don Perrata's Office, an African American, came to Davis to walk precincts before an election. The man was harassed by the police. It was an embarassing episode. I've been told that Stephen Souza was in charge of the Democratic Party in Davis at that time and that he was incensed. Now just a few years later, he's defending the actions of the police as they make state and even national news coverage.

Don Saylor is a cold and calculating figure. In my experience, he coldly manipulates people for political gain. It is my view that Stephen Souza is a tragic figure--selling out his soul to gain political office. I often wonder though if he'll have anymore gain from it than Faust himself.

Council has suggested that the members can reapply. They've even asked some of the less dangerous members to do so. Some have refused. Some such as the former chair and vice chair have stated they will not seek re-appointment. Council will indeed get their wish--they will get a commission that will rarely speak out against the council and the city of Davis will be far worse for it. Whether the Council knows it or not, the city was not built on pliant, quiet people, practicing business as usual. The city is strongest because people like Stephen Souza would not take no for an answer and pushed hate-crimes through, people like Shelly Bailes helped to enact anti-discrimination ordinances that covered gays and lesbians, and people like Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald continue to push the police and the council on the issue of police misconduct and forced the council to adopt an ombudsman model that they clearly otherwise would not have done. It's also remarkable that both Souza and Bailes who led past fights and started their own controversies would in the end advocate for the removal of Escamilla Greenwald as chair and in Souza's case, advocate for the disbanding of the commission... Oh yeah, I forgot, it's only temporary.

---Henry Bianco