Good Article on Electeds’ Public Speaking Rights

The public perception of elected officials tends to be of someone who is privileged – who gets to say and do a lot more than the average citizen does.  But the reality is that an elected official is far more restricted in words or actions than the average citizen.  You’re restricted by your city’s charter (or state law, in the case of General Law cities), which forbids you from doing many things (like interfering with the city’s operations – “councilmanic interference”).  You’re restricted by Council Policy, which is the informal set of rules that govern how Council and city policies are enacted and enforced.  You’re restrained by the California Brown Act, which prohibits elected officials from words or actions that may equate to reaching a majority decision outside of publicly noticed meetings (among many of its restrictions).  And all of this unfortunately comes across to citizens who don’t understand this as a lack of concern or an unwillingness to engage.  In reality, those elected officials who are the most restrained tend to be those who take these obligations the most seriously and seek to be the most effective in office.  And those who are the least restrained in their words or actions tend to have the greatest disregard for the law or for the effective functioning of government, or the least concern for being effective.

SFGate has a good article on the legal restrictions that act to prevent elected officials from speaking their minds, particularly on land use decisions.  For example, an elected official who publicly states “I would never vote to approve a project like this” in advance of a decision must often recuse themselves from the actual vote, in order to provide an applicant with a fair and impartial hearing on his or her issue, as is the applicant’s legal right.  One who refuses to recuse risks having the decision tossed out by the courts if the vote goes his way.  It’s a good read.

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