Monday, November 26, 2007

North Canton's Outgoing Council Muzzled Citizens Commentary On Public Business

Prepared Comments Made to
November 26, 2007

Every two years the citizens of North Canton elect a new city council. As this current membership of council completes its term in office, it is customary to write into the history books the accomplishments and shortcomings of this council and its members.

Given that politicians continually lavish praise and congratulations on each other as they conduct the public’s business and wield power given to them by the electorate, there is no reason for me to add to that chorus.

What I will do is talk about how these outgoing members of council have wielded power, in my opinion, to the detriment of the public during their term in office.

First of all, I feel that the public has not been served by this council with the limitations it has imposed on the public when one wishes to address council in its public sessions. The public wants to address council on the record and not after the meeting or in the parking lot or on the telephone.

This council continues to prohibit public input at Council of the Whole meetings when proposed legislation is being discussed. Why do you fear citizens that you are sworn to represent, from speaking in a public forum on issues that are important to them and the community? Earlier this year, this council further limited public comment by citizens at regular council meetings by instituting a five-minute speaking limit. As a result, citizens can only address this body while everyone watches the clock.

In a concurring opinion from a well known 1964 U. S. Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice Hugo Black joined by Justice William O. Douglas stated the following:

“…a representative democracy ceases to exist the moment that the public functionaries are by any means absolved from their responsibility to their constituents; and this happens whenever the constituent can be restrained in any manner from speaking, writing, or publishing his opinion upon any public measure, or upon the conduct of those who may advise or execute it. An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment.”

I feel that this council has not served the public in another way and that is by failing to provide a conducive atmosphere in which good government can function. This council has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the actions of one of its members and at many times even supported this councilman as this councilman openly and boldly displayed his disdain for the mayor and city administrator of the City of North Canton.

The mayor’s refusal to relent on laws of nepotism last year only fueled the animosity of this member of council. What did this council body do regarding the allegations of nepotism against this fellow member of council last year? This council body did more than just sit idly by and do nothing. This council body united together against the mayor and refused to address the issue of nepotism.

This same councilmember has also designated himself as the city’s sole negotiator and undertaken to negotiate agreements with adjoining townships while publicly telling the administration that they were not welcome in the negotiations.

Why has this council not reigned in a councilmember who is clearly exceeding his authority in placing himself in these meetings?

Why are council members not concerned that many of these meetings have been behind closed doors and in violation of state law?

And this evening, at this council’s last meeting, this council member is attempting to persuade this council to adopt agreements that are highly beneficial to both Plain and Jackson Townships and very detrimental to the City of North Canton. Politics is being placed before good policy if these agreements are implemented and North Canton’s future growth is in jeopardy while other communities grow their boundaries.

If this council’s memory is a little short, let me remind you that the officials from Plain and Jackson Township who are pushing for this agreement negotiated by North Canton’s rogue council member were the same officials who were here in this chamber speaking in opposition to the recall of this council member earlier this year. Are council members blind to what is happening before their eyes?

The North Canton council member who was the subject of a recall earlier this year responded with a defamation lawsuit. This action was not only a detriment to me but to all citizens who comment on the actions of their public officials in the performance of their public duties.

I cannot fault this council body for the actions of this council member regarding the lawsuit. What I can do is quote the concurring opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Goldberg and Justice William O. Douglas in New York Times v. Sullivan.

"In my view, the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution afford to the citizen and to the press an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harm which may flow from excesses and abuses. The prized American right "to speak one's mind," about public officials and affairs needs "breathing space to survive..." The right should not depend upon a probing by the jury of the motivation of the citizen or press. The theory of our Constitution is that every citizen may speak his mind and every newspaper express its view on matters of public concern and may not be barred from speaking or publishing because those in control of government think that what is said or written is unwise, unfair, false, or malicious. In a democratic society, one who assumes to act for the citizens in an executive, legislative, or judicial capacity must expect that his official acts will be commented upon and criticized. Such criticism cannot, in my opinion, be muzzled or deterred by the courts at the instance of public officials under the label of libel."

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, in Whitney v. California said “Those who won our independence believed…that public discussion is a political duty…”
My hope is that elected leaders would do their duty.

Thank you,
Chuck Osborne
City of North Canton