Editorial: Political Speech Should Be Free

Roland Velasco, Mayor

Since California has had strict protections for keeping government open to the people. That’s why we were shocked to see that Gilroy’s Mayor Roland Velasco was giving his state of the city speech to an audience that paid $30 apiece at a Chamber of Commerce fundraiser to hear it last week, and with him were four other city council members.
The Brown Act requires that the public be informed of meetings with a majority of the city council at least 72 hours in advance, and charging to hear an elected official’s take on the city seemed to be the opposite of open government for and by the people. It seems to be excluding anyone who can’t afford a not insignificant fee.
There was even an awkward moment at last week’s city council meeting in which Velasco chided council member Fred Tovar for not ponying up and said he would have paid his way in. Tovar said later he resented it. An administrator at Stanford University, he could have paid. But he didn’t believe that elected officials should be charging the public to hear them speak about the state of the city.
While this was the first we had heard of officials charging to hear an annual report, it turns out to be more common than we would have guessed. Chambers of Commerce have been sponsoring states of the city speeches around country, much to the chagrin of people in the comments sections of local newspapers and ethics and first amendment attorneys.
The paid speech in front of a majority of the city’s seven council members comes close to the line of being illegal, says David Snyder, of the state’s First Amendment Coalition, but because city business wasn’t discussed among the members, it probably qualifies as an exception.
“While that probably allows them the Brown Act, it violates the spirit of the Act, not only that the public should be allowed to attend government meetings for free, but with advanced notice to allow them to know what is being discussed.”
From a public relations aspect, he added, “it’s problematic.”
Velasco realizes that. He says he had the speech videoed by the local Community Access Media Partnership and he will try to have it posted to the City Hall website. He will also give the speech again for free on a Saturday morning, probably April 15.
The new mayor said he researched the issue before saying yes to the Chamber and he consulted with the city attorney. He also saw that in other cities charging for the speech brought in hundreds more people than delivering it for free.
After getting some complaining phone calls, he said that if it’s done in the future, they will send out notices of the speech, “in an abundance of caution.” He will also make sure the public has better access to the speech by video or live streaming. He said he offered to pay admission for people who couldn’t afford this year’s speech and bought six tickets.
“The last thing I want is for the public to be shut out,” he said.
We say that’s what he should have said when the Chamber approached him. He should have agreed to do the speech only if it were live streamed or if there were free seats for those who wanted them.
We deserve an open government, not a circus, not a place where officials help raise money for a political body–the Chamber–that works for a specific group of city businesses and doesn’t represent all of the city’s people and isn’t a charity.
We are already paying the mayor and council members’ salaries and we shouldn’t have to pay again to hear them give important views about the city’s future.