, December 01, 2021

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ACLU sends second letter asking Vallejo council to revise public comment policy


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ACLU sends second letter asking Vallejo council to revise public comment policy
Vallejo City Hall

VALLEJO - The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sent a letter to the city of Vallejo last month arguing that the city’s revised public comment policy continues to chill free speech.

The letter, dated Oct. 18, urged the Vallejo City Council to amend the policy again after Councilmember Pippin Dew called a point-of-order against a public speaker who was criticizing several city staffers during a September city council meeting.

Mayor Robert McConnell ultimately overruled Dew, stating that the speaker, Melissa Swift, had not disrupted the meeting with her comments.

“While we appreciate the work the Council is doing to ensure a more open and collaborative government, we are concerned that pursuant to the revised policy, some councilmembers may unnecessarily call points-of-order to silence or chill members of the public who comment on the performance of public officials or other city staff,” the letter states.

The ACLU further asked for the council to remove language from the policy that prevents speakers from making “personal attacks or slanderous statements.”

“Taking such action will allow for the public to fully participate in Vallejo City Council meetings and help to restore the public’s trust in its local government,” the letter states.

The policy has been met with skepticism and debate about whether the public’s constitutional rights are being violated through the policy the city originally unveiled in August and contained language that allowed councilmembers to call a point of order regardless if the comments disrupted the meeting. In response, the ACLU sent a letter dated Sept. 10 that called for council to rescind the policy because it “[threatened] to suppress the voices of community members, and thus runs afoul of First Amendment principles…”

Instead, the city amended the policy to its current version, which allows councilmembers to call points of order if they deem a speakers’ comments  to be disrupting the meeting.

The first use of the point-of-order under the revised policy took place during the Sept. 14 city council meeting when Dew used it against Swift as she began to criticize Vallejo City Attorney Veronica Nebb for retaining Chief Assistant City Attorney Randy Risner. It was revealed in January 2020 that Risner had been sanctioned by a federal bankruptcy court in 2011.

“How is Risner still on the payroll?” Swift asked. “The fact that he hasn’t been fired should raise concerns about City Attorney Veronica Nebb’s competence and judgement.”

As Swift continued, Dew called her point-of-order, which was overruled by the mayor.  

Reached by phone Tuesday, Swift said she agrees with the ACLU that the policy has a chilling effect on free speech.“They need to rescind the policy,” she said.

Swift believes the policy is meant to dissuade people from participating in council meetings and voicing opinions about issues surrounding city hall.

“They don’t want people asking questions,” she said.

Swift says  she believes city hall and the council couldn’t wait to call a point-of-order on her for expressing her concerns about the city. A staunch critic of city hall, Swift has called for the city council to hold staff and the Vallejo Police Department accountable.  

During that September meeting, Swift brought up that Mike Malone — who was hired as the city’s water director in 2017 and then tapped to serve as interim city manager in late September — was named in a sexual harassment and retaliation claim when he worked for the city of Sacramento several years ago.

Swift also spoke about then-interim City Manager Anne Cardwell being named in a ongoing retaliation lawsuit filed by three former senior-level city hall employees. All three employees were fired by former City Manager Greg Nyhoff in April 2020. Cardwell left the city in October to become finance director with the city of Napa. A co-defendent in that suit, Vallejo’s former human resources director Heather Ruiz, left the city last March and has since become the human resources director for the city of Napa.

Vallejo City Attorney Veronica Nebb nor city spokesperson Christina Lee couldn’t be immediately reached on Tuesday.

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