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View video of interview, which also aired on KNSJ radio:

March 25, 2024 (La Mesa) East County Magazine recently interviewed La Mesa activists Janet Castaños, PhD, and Gene Carpenter, who raise concerns over La Mesa City Council’s Feb. 27 decision to end remote public comments.  The action came after anti-Semitic comments were made by several callers at the previous meeting, though the city’s stated reason for ending the public’s ability to call in with comments was that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Castaños calls the vote a “knee jerk” reaction without public input.  “We had built greater community activity, greater engagement in our City Council with our Zoom and call-in options,” noting that people who were sick or had childcare issues could call in from home.  She objects to the decision made “without even taking the time to look at a variety of options that are used by the City of San Diego City  Council or the Board of Supervisors...”

“It affects all boards and commissions for the city of La Mesa...You have to physically be there if you want to make a comment on anything on the agenda,” she added.

Castaños is the retired Dean of Humanities and Social/Behavioral Sciences and former Acting Vice President of Academic Affairs for the Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District. She helped establish La Mesa’s Community Police Oversight Board, serving as Chair and Vice Chair. She is president of La Mesa Conversations, a steering committee member for Keep La Mesa Beautiful, and has facilitated San Diego’s Resident Leadership Academy, empowering residents to advocate for changes in their communities. 

Carpenter is a founding member of La Mesa Conversations, a discussion forum for residents on local issues. He is on the steering committee of Keep La Mesa Beautiful and previously ran the Fresh Start Breakfast at La Mesa First United Methodist Church. He is also a former Board Member of La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club.

Carpenter praised ECM for airing a complete interview rather than an excerpt, as a TV station had done that he felt distorted his views.   All they said was I was appalled, but they didn’t add that I really felt that we’re taking the wrong path if we’re going to end remote comments altogether, because you fight hate speech by more speech—not shutting the system down.”

He noted that the City Council didn’t cut its own members out from participating remotely—only others, and that eliminating remote comments could make council meetings go faster.

He said that in the past, before COVID prompted online meetings and remote call-ins, the city clerk would read public comments; he was unsure whether this practice would be resumed. 

ECM editor noted that some other East County councils allow remote comments, and that other boards and commissions across the County have had to deal with offensive comments, which were usually short-lived.

Castaños said she proposed a series of other options at the Feb. 27 meeting that Councilman Colin Parent, author of the motion, said he would consider. “Their ad hoc subcommittee has not gotten back to me or returned my calls, which is disheartening.” 

She suggested that remote callers be handled accordingly:

  • Ask all speakers to provide first and last names, city of residence, and topics, as is done during for in-person speakers.
  • Have them speak on camera.
  • The first 15 minutes of public comments on non-agenda items can be ordered with La Mesa residents who are present first, non-La Mesa present speakers second, remote residents, thirds, and remote non-residents last.  Speakers beyond the 15 minute limit could be moved to the end of the meeting.
  • Be restricted to the topic that they listed.

ECM editor Miriam Raftery noted potential problems with the first two suggestions, since County Counsel has previously said a speaker can remain anonymous if they choose. Speakers can be asked for names, but can speak anonymously if they request to do so.  As for speaking on camera, some remote meetings have been Zoom-bombed by people showing porn images.

Carpenter suggested that remote comments on agendized items should be reinstated, even if  council retains the ban on non-agendized public comments.

“Fifteen percent of our residents in La Mesa are seniors...15 percent have some sort of disabilities, and almost 30 percent are households with young children,”  says Castaños, noting that banning remote comments limits access for these people and others. “I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s democratic,” she said.

During an early March meeting after the ban on remote comments, one resident pointedly brought a noisy baby and toddlers with him during public comments, noting that he would rather be making comments from home.

Raftery quoted Councilman Jack Shu, who said councilmembers should not be intimidated by hate speech and that the public should have the same right to participate remotely that Councilmembers now have to vote and engage in discussion via Zoom.

The Council has been known to chance its stances following strong public outcry, such as in the recent electronic billboards controversy.   Asked if there are efforts for protests to convince members they misjudged community sentiment, Carpenter said, “I consider that Janet is somebody who is highly regarded in the community. She has put in countless hours of her time to make this a better community. She sent emails, she made phone calls, and she’s been blanketly ignored by the Mayor of La Mesa and City Councilman Parent, who happens to be running for the 79th Assembly” district.” 

Castaños said she also reached out to other Councilmembers and staff, as did other community members who provided a flyer outlining concerns. “What’s really frustrating is they go into a black hole.” She says a friend’s email program showed his email was deleted unread by the Mayor.

Carpenter noted that there is no way to know if emailed comments are read, unlike remote comments that were made live via  Zoom.  He also objected to the Mayor and Parent ignoring requests to meet with Castaños.

On Feb. 27, 10 or 11 public comments said they wanted to support keeping remote public comments. Only one opposed, who feared remote comments could make it easier for people who wanted to engage in hate speech. The ban on remote public comments went into effect immediately, without waiting for a second reading.

Raftery asked whether outreach has been done to the ACLU, civil rights or open government groups. 

“We’ve reached out to a disability rights organization for California,” said Castaños , who said the group has written the state  Attorney General asking that live remote access be required throughout California.”  She said they have also reached out to Assemblymember Akilah Weber and Congresswoman Sarah Jacobs to ask for letters of support to restore public access.

Raftery noted that residents across party lines could have a stake at retaining remote public comments, lest a board try to stifle input beyond hate speech, such as opponents of development projects or other important issues.

Castaños said, “I think it’s really important that the city take a stand and make a statement on who we are and what we stand for.”  She called for “a very strong statement by our Mayor” and hopes that Mayor Mark Arapostathis will have a statement ready to read if hate speech ever returns during a Council meeting.

“Let’s have a Mayor that will step up and stand up to hate,” Carpenter concurred.

For members of the public who want to speak out on this issue,  Castaños suggests the public reach out to Councilmembers. “We want to spread the message that we can’t let hatemongers win. They want to remove public comments for ordinary people like you and I. They want to disrupt civic engagement...If we give in to that, it’s helping them win.”

Raftery noted that on the other side of the issue,  the Council’s action came against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and the shooting of a Jewish dentist in nearby El Cajon.  But she added that silencing anti-Semitic speakers silences everyone, including Jewish residents who may want to speak out.

Carpenter called for concerned citizens such as Castaños to run for public office,  while acknowledging that the issues confronting councilmembers can be challenging.

Castaños stressed the importance of civic engagement. “We live in a democracy.  We need to participate,” she concluded,  “You need to be engaged, and have a voice.  Any way of increasing your civic engagement is really important.”



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