A call by California City Mayor Pro Tem Don Parris to take action against Jim Creighton, the city’s planning commission chair, returned to the council chamber Tuesday, Sept. 8, only to become a discussion on free speech.
Parris had originally submitted the item in a very brief report at an August council meeting but pulled it from the agenda after councilmembers Ron Smith and Nick Lessenevitch noted concerns about it.
Parris submitted a slightly longer report for the Tuesday meeting, alleging that Creighton spoke about privileged airport leases, calling the city council “liars and thieves” regarding the special tax and making disparaging comments about the council while sitting in the audience prior to California’s stay-at-home order. Parris also noted that Creighton told everyone he does not use Facebook “then uses his wife’s page to again go after Council.”
Another chief topic was a letter sent to council members requesting information on fellow commissioner Carla Conry about his “continued disparaging remarks to the commissioner from the time she was sworn in.”
Conry had filed a report against Creighton on July 3 after Creighton had sent a letter asking for information on Conry to council members and staff. She read her complaint at a July 13 commission meeting. She stated that Creighton, along with Mayor Chuck McGuire, had targeted her and said the letter emailed to councilmembers had solicited information about her private life and activities outside official city business.
Prior to the discussion, Lessenevitch recused himself after telling the council he received information “leading into a lawsuit” and had prejudiced himself on the discussion.
Parris prefaced his complaint by saying the item has nothing to do with him running for mayor or Creighton for council in the Nov. 3 election.
“I feel that Ms. Conry that because filed the complaint, the council should hear the complaint that she is concerned about,” Parris said.
City Attorney Christian Bettenhausen cautioned council members to not use the forum as a political forum or “as a place to unnecessarily disparaging someone.” He noted that the council reserves the right to appoint or remove someone from the commission without having to conduct a public forum.
When McGuire issued the mandate to refrain from disparaging remarks, resident Al Hutson called it a restriction on free speech.
Hutson also noted that the council hearing regarding Creighton infringed on his First Amendment rights.
“To single someone out and strip away their First Amendment right clearly because someone is offended is a violation of the protected rights,” Hutson said.
Resident DJ Twohig said he was disappointed the item was on the agenda and noted the difficulty in refraining from derogatory comments.
“Leaders at the city need to play the varsity game and keep the eye on the prize,” Twohig said. “We’ve got to start coming together even if we don’t agree with someone’s comments.”
He said pursuing the agenda item as an actionable one “is going to open a Pandora’s Box for where every council member is going to be investigated for bias, many comments in the past and the future that were inappropriate.”
Resident Kristy Mundt, in voicing support for Creighton, said Creighton “is someone who comes prepared, does his homework and gets things done the way they are supposed to be done” and he and his wife volunteer “do so much for this community.”
“We should not be doing this right now,” Mundt said, referring to the agenda item. “We have so many people suing the city right now that you’re opening yourself up for another lawsuit just because he was doing his job.”
Attack on free speech or valid concern?
When the discussion came back to the council, Parris read the email sent by Creighton to council members regarding Conry posting negative comments on her social media platforms, and that he would talk with Conry privately on the matters.
“When I saw this email I was very concerned as to what are the duties of the chair of the planning commission,” Parris said. “Does he have the right and authority to solicit information to talk to another planning commissioner?”
When Conry was called to testified, she insisted McGuire recuse himself from the discussion “because he was a party to this email.” The city attorney said McGuire had no reason to recuse himself since there was no financial interest at stake.
“Arguably, if he was so biased that he couldn’t have an open mind about the decision he was making, in that situation he might recuse himself,” Bettenhausen said. “Short of that, the law doesn’t require it.”
McGuire said he was “not biased about anything on this.”
Conry said continued attacks on her by Creighton have forced her to file a Freedom of Information Act request for all emails and communications regarding the matter.
Conry said during a January visit to the city’s planning department, Creighton told her “to watch your social media behavior and who I associate it” and that she needed to take an ethics class in March. She said the topic was brought other times but was told by Creighton that he does not have a Facebook page.
“Mr. Creighton’s July 1 email to the council appears to be an attempt to gather information to use as a tool in order to continue to demean me,” Conry, adding it was just one in a series since January 2020. “Commissioner Creighton has no authority in how to instruct me what I can post on social media.”
Conry added “it is amazing that it took a formal complaint that was not acted on immediately to get here.”
“I had to listen to the public’s ridicule, it’s not about First Amendment right, it was about my freedom of speech, about what I want to say,” Conry said. She all of her posts are signed as a citizen and community activist for the city.
“As a community activist, I will stand up and I will say what is on my mind,” Conry said.
Creighton defends himself
Creighton, in his defense, cited California’s government code prohibiting local legislative bodies such as a city council from barring public criticism of procedures, policies and services provided by the local agency.
He tore into Parris’s reports, arguing that airport lease information isn’t privileged and can be obtained by a public records request. He added the purpose in requesting the information was to help the city bring lease information to the forefront for review.
Creighton also said he never called anyone a liar or a thief. “I did use the term stealing in the same context that I was the words withholding and withheld, so I guess ‘thief’ could be discerned from that,” Creighton said, apologizing for what he called a poor choice of words.
He argued due to the city’s broadcasting of city meetings, it’s easy for someone to transcribe his comments out and post them to Facebook.
Creighton said he has a First Amendment right to “speak on matters I believe the city council as a whole has made or is about to make an ill-informed decision.” He added doesn’t waste the council’s time reading ordinances to them, doing so only to refresh the council’s memory.
Creighton also admonished Parris for including his wife in the discussion after alleging that Creighton used her Facebook account for his own agenda.
“She has every right to post what she feels like,” Creighton said. “This is between you and me.”
Creighton’s said email related to Conry was prompted by a June call from Assistant City Attorney Baron Bettenhausen regarding Conry’s remarks against city employees, and the advice received was to speak with Conry to “tone her language down on city employees.” A call to McGuire confirmed the conversation, adding disparaging comments had been made on councilmembers as well. Creighton said he would check individual councilmembers but left out Conry’s name and gender.
Conry filed her complaint on July 2 and read it at the July 13 planning commission. Creighton said he attempted to reach out via text on July 10 and July 13 to resolve the situation but received no response.
“The one thing that I agree with is that this issue should have been handled by the mayor,” Creighton said. “I am the planning commission chair, not the planning commission supervisor.”
He also called Parris’s accusation of disparaging comments to Conry “a blatant lie” and asked for proof that his comments to her were anything “other than professional.”
“You, sir, have possibly brought up a defamation suit as a result of this hunt of yours if this review is done in open session,” Creighton said. “It seems you would have preferred to be in closed session so that I could not defend myself.”
When discussion returned to the council, McGuire prefaced his comments by saying the item should have been pulled from the agenda since it infringes on people’s First Amendment rights.
“In the past, we have had other citizens who have questioned the city council on decisions made and have made disparaging comments to the council, yet nothing occurred,” McGuire said. “This time it appears to me that Mayor Pro Tem Parris is taking this as a personal attack.”
His opinion, he said, was based on Parris’s comments about Creighton’s disparaging comments to the council and providing his comments to others to post on Facebook and wasting the council’s time reading ordinances.
“Just because a citizen questions the council about a decision they made on a subject matter and the citizen does not agree on that decision, that does not authorize any member or council member to attempt to publicly humiliate that citizen during a council meeting,” McGuire said. He added a planning commission chair attempted “to do an inquiry, not an investigation” and the inquiry came at his request.
McGuire later noted Parris’s report lacks documentation and a legal opinion from the city attorney dealing with First Amendment rights. He later added that when a city employee’s name enters the equation, “that’s where the problem is at, where it opens up” problems.
He added that despite Conry making comments in her personal time, given her role on the planning commission, it “mixes the city into a lawsuit.”
McGuire said his decision to have Creighton conduct an inquiry was seen as “the least intrusive method” for looking at Conry’s Facebook activity.
Conry, in her defense, said she never puts out city employee names on Facebook. She added that she has stated since her appointment in January that she would not do anything as a planning commissioner on social media.
Bettenhausen, the city attorney, cautioned that while the First Amendment and state law permit criticisms of public officials, there’s a difference between private citizens and those in public roles.
“The moment someone steps into a public role, whether as a commissioner or as a councilmember, you have to be more cautious about what you’re saying, even if you’re saying ‘I’m saying it outside my role as a commissioner,’” Bettenhausen said.
Conry also said Creighton’s inquiry was “very intrusive to me” and later chastised McGuire for not tackling the issue with the city council, which confirms commission appointments.
Because of Creighton’s involvement, she said it has driven a wedge in their professional relationship before apologizing to Creighton.
“You left the communication out from our council members so you could discuss this and not get to this point,” Conry said. “I think you owe me and Mr. Creighton an apology.”
McGuire said he owed no one an apology.
When McGuire asked if action needed to be taken, Parris said the matter had been discussed and no action was necessary.
Councilman Ron Smith said he understood McGuire’s need not to restrict free speech while protecting the names of city employees from being disparaged.
“We are not playing T-ball, so when someone chooses to disparage us, we take it and we do our best to let it go and come back without bias for the next meeting,” Smith said. He added he was grateful for Conry’s apology to Creighton, noting both keep the council on their toes.
“At the end of the day, we aren’t trying to restrict free speech, we’re trying to keep the city out of needless lawsuits,” Smith said. “I hope that Mrs. Conry and Mr. Creighton will have a conversation.
Councilman Bill Smith said public criticism “has to hit you in the shoulder and roll off like water.”
“We’re all citizens of this town and we need to work together, we don’t always get along or agree, but we can agree to disagree and that’s the attitude we need,” he said.