Island Talkback: Dan Wood on Paradegate
In last week’s Fourth of July Parade, non-incumbent political candidates were told that they would be unable to express their candidacy in any way, thanks to a legal opinion issued by City Attorney Teresa Highsmith just two weeks before the parade. Council candidates Rob Bonta and Tony Daysog both self-censored their parade entries in order to stay in the parade.
This last-minute decision, and the lack of any accountability for its origins, reflects very badly on the City of Alameda and its government.
The most immediate reaction many people had about this was the idea that free speech was being stifled, ironically, on a day celebrating our nation’s independence — and, indirectly, our freedoms. The issue of free speech has come up here before; when an El-Cerrito-based anti-gay group participated in 2003, they were allowed to enter because denying their entry would be un-American, even if we didn’t appreciate their message. In the Contra Costa Times, Teresa Highsmith is quoted as saying “A group may be banned only if its message advocates violence or constitutes a hate crime.” And Mayor Johnson said “I don’t want to censor the parade but want to keep it as a celebration, a community event.”
Times have certainly changed.
The City Attorney’s rationale is that political advocacy does not serve the “theme or purpose” of the parade, and that “City funds cannot be used to advocate for a candidate or ballot measure.”
Now hold on just one minute. Let’s take a look at these two arguments.
The Fourth of July Parade has a “theme” that a political candidate conflicts with? Since when? I have been watching or participating in the parade for over a decade, and I have seen entries both military and pacifist, advocates of Presidential impeachment and Presidential candidates, Republican and Democratic groups, and, yes, political candidates. (Although I don’t have any pictures or recollections specifically of city office candidates, I did find a picture of another candidate in my personal photo archives. Do you have any photos of council candidates?) Let’s not neglect to mention that the incumbent officeholders, often up for re-election, get prime spots in the parade to wave at and shake hands with potential voters.
What could have prompted Ms. Highsmith to pick this year, 2010, to issue this legal opinion, if political advocacy and candidacy has been an integral part of the parade through the many years that she has held this city office?
For the second point, isn’t the Fourth of July Parade actually run by an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization? This is not a city-run event.
Or perhaps Highsmith was talking about the recent donation made by Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant of $10,000 to the parade committee. The timing of this heavy donation with the legal ruling comes at a very odd time. Could it be the thinking that since the city made such a big donation to the committee, city management seems to be able to dictate what is appropriate content for the parade? And could this heavy donation be so pleasing to the parade committee members that it would be better not to raise a stink about this first-amendment-defying decision?
The real question, where the scandal lurks, is who is behind this ruling. On the various Alameda blogs, speculation is rampant. The most likely motive for this quick decision is political profit; namely, to put candidates Tony Daysog and Rob Bonta at a disadvantage. Who has the authority to direct the City Attorney to spend taxpayer-funded time to work on such a project? The city charter says she “shall not commence any action without permission of the Council or written instruction of the City Manager.” But according to Mayor Johnson, in an television interview, it was the parade committee who ordered the opinion. So let me get this straight: A non-profit organization can direct city staff?
I called the city attorney’s office to verify Johnson’s claim but my call has not yet been returned.
On the other hand, as reported in The Island last week, Highsmith said the letter was prompted by a member of the City Council.
Blogger Lauren Do submitted a public records request to find out who initiated this opinion letter and received the following response: “The City Attorney’s office has advised that there are no public records that are responsive to your request.”
Somebody is lying. Uncovering the lie will expose the motivation for the entire fiasco.
We need an investigation of the roles and connections of the city attorney, the interim city manager for making the $10,000 donation, the mayor and incumbent City Council members who would have something to gain by their opponents being stifled, and the parade committee leadership, to find out the real motivation for this nonsensical ruling. I hope that some of the members of the City Council, or outside forces like the ACLU (on the grounds of the free speech issue) will flex some muscle and find out who is behind this. But more importantly, to restore free speech at our beloved Fourth of July Parade in the years to come.
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