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Councilmembers, Loan Us Your Ears

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A California state appellate court is calling on local elected officials to make a New Year’s resolution to listen up—to their constituents, that is.

A ruling handed down last Thursday is a result of a lawsuit brought by owners of the Blue Zebra, an East Los Angeles strip club. Roger Jon Diamond, attorney for the Blue Zebra, addressed the Los Angeles City Council in June 2003 regarding a request to allow the club to stay open until 4:00 AM on weekends. Diamond anticipated being ignored and videotaped the proceedings, which consisted of typical Council behavior: one official on a cell phone, three holding a private conversation, others walking around the room.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday that these actions violated the Blue Zebra’s due process rights and ordered a new hearing. The City hasn’t decided whether to appeal the ruling, but did argue that the hearing was fair because everyone was treated the same. The judges were not satisfied with this argument, writing that both sides “had the right to be equally heard, not equally ignored.”

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The ruling doesn’t apply when the Council is passing laws or presenting resolutions, but only when they are acting in a judicial capacity, such as deciding an appeal on a land-use case. Despite this limitation to the ruling, Councilmember Dennis Zine was incredulous at the unreasonable demands of the court. "The city should appeal, absolutely," he said. "It's impractical for us to sit there like students in a classroom paying attention to the professor."

LAist gets that there are two sides to this issue. There are so many items that come before the City Council in any given week that staff members are responsible for researching background, presenting pros and cons, and recommending action. That’s not to say Councilmembers don’t do their own homework. They read literally hundreds of pages of reports and recommendations, ask hard questions, and sometimes agonize over a vote. Because of their efforts, and those of their hard-working staffers, they head into chambers three times a week with a good understanding of the agenda items and knowing, usually, how they will vote on most issues. They then use this time to multi-task.

Any one of us would gladly use time spent in yet another boring meeting to accomplish another task. But we can't do this for risk of being fired, despite our (possibly) noble intentions of getting more work done. Yet Councilmembers routinely use laptops or cellphones while their constituents speak before them. They do this at the risk of alienating the very people who elected them with the expectation that they would be heard when decisions are made that affect their homes or businesses. These residents deserve to be heard, especially when they take time off of work to come to City Hall and express their concerns about a planning or building and safety case impacting their community.

Given that Thursday's ruling only applies to judicial cases—which by no means make up the bulk of items on Council agendas—LAist can’t justify the failure of Councilmembers to behave civilly and listen respectfully, whether or not the words they hear impact their decision.