GUEST COMMENTARY - It’s time that we Californians censure the whole idea of censure.
Because it’s consuming the precious time and money of our local governments.
Censure is the name often given to resolutions or declarations that officials issue against someone—typically a colleague who doesn’t vote with you, and who has said something you don’t like. It is usually ceremonial, and rarely involves any additional punitive action.
Why this censure surge? It’s a national fad, of sorts—censure resolutions are suddenly popular in Washington after the censure earlier this year of Burbank Congressman Adam Schiff for the unforgivable crime of impeaching an insurrectionist president. It also doesn’t help that state officials—understandably frustrated with conservative school boards over transphobic policies and book bans—have sought to make it easier to censure local officials.
But my own travel around the state suggests three fundamental reasons for the trend.
First, after the isolation and anger of the pandemic, our elected officials, like the rest of us, are struggling with how to relate to one another in person.
Second, California’s local elected officials—rendered weak by the state’s highly centralized governing system—are feeling especially powerless to make the systemic changes that the moment demands. So, they use the limited powers they have, like censure.
Finally, today’s censure surge reflects a monstrously myopic society that has a quasi-religious obsession with policing expression and tone—even as it tolerates ceaseless violence.
Troublingly, the censure surge demonstrates ignorance of democracy. Many elected officials are finding themselves censured by colleagues for doing what we should want our leaders to do in a free society—speak their minds, dissent forcefully, and fight for transparency.
Censure isn’t always morally wrong. But it’s almost always beside the point—in no small part because it has no legal force behind it. It’s a simple business to say “Bad dog!” to a colleague who barks wrong. It’s much harder to do the democratic work of recalling them from office.
Take the Los Angeles City Council, which made a great show of censuring three colleagues caught on tape in a racist conversation that offended almost every demographic in town. Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson defended the censure, proclaiming that “these comments are unacceptable to us and that we disassociate ourselves from them as a body.”
The censure surge demonstrates ignorance of democracy.
But if the council had wanted to make a substantive response, it could have embraced a charter reform to completely redesign a body that, between the tape and rampant corruption uncovered by the FBI, has lost all credibility. Instead, councilmembers chose a censure with no real consequences. One councilmember, who had made the worst remarks on the tape, resigned almost immediately after the audio was leaked. A second councilmember ignored the censure and left at his term’s end. A third councilmember remains in office.
At least in the L.A. case, the censure had something to do with words that were clearly damaging. It’s far more common for censure to target officials who communicate in productive ways.
In California, local governments routinely handle important personnel decisions and contract negotiations—with huge consequences for residents—in closed session, and never publicly disclose details. In California City, in the Kern County desert, Councilmember Karen Macedonio was censured earlier this year for texting a candidate for city manager to apologize for the way he had been treated in a closed session.
She shouldn’t have revealed details of the deliberations, critics said. But accounts suggest that the real reason Macedonio was censured is that she stood at odds with the three-member majority on the five-person council. Dissenters are typical censure targets.
Indeed, while American democracy is premised on free exchange, especially in public settings, censures often target speech by elected officials in public meetings. For example, Councilmember Mike Johnson of Ventura faced censure for criticizing two city staff members during a council meeting. The staffers complained that being called out in public constituted bullying.
Such censures have real costs, in time and money. Ventura spent $75,000 of taxpayer money hiring a law firm to investigate words uttered in front of the council itself. Preposterously, the details of this investigation of public words are being kept secret, as a personnel matter.
While speaking in public can get you censured, real criminal offenses by elected officials rarely draw censures because they are handled by the criminal justice system. The Los Angeles City Council didn’t censure member Curren Price after federal charges were filed against him. In the same vein, the city council in Winters, in Yolo County, declined to censure a councilmember facing charges related to his possession of two AR-15 rifles.
It’s far more likely for officials to face censure for basic acts of democracy. In the Orange County city of Cypress, councilmember Frances Marquez was censured and fined $100 last fall for the grave offense for going to the local high school with two other city council candidates and talking to students about politics. Marquez even offered some students a chance to volunteer for her campaign, to fulfill community service requirements.
Marquez, a frequent dissenter on the council, had previously been censured for—you guessed it—making public information from the council’s closed sessions.
Unfortunately, keeping the children of Cypress safe from even a whiff of political campaigning may have real costs. Marquez’s lawyer has threatened a defamation and slander lawsuit against the city. That money might be better spent on a civics course for councilmembers; the $100 fine against Marquez for political expression is a First Amendment violation any high schooler could recognize.
To support censures, cities and school boards often cite the provisions of their own codes of conduct, which typically read as if they were written for elementary schools, not democratic governments.
After the city council in Seaside, in Monterey County, considered censure of one councilmember for criticizing his colleagues for not doing more on downtown revitalization, the city drafted a new code of conduct that declared, impossibly, “At all times, representatives of the City are to be courteous and polite to each other, and everyone they meet.”
Such rules are antithetical to the best advocacy and activism, which are often loud and conflict-inducing. The late, great Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of a president and mother-in-law of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, once gave me a T-shirt reading, “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History.”
There are signs that the excesses of the censure surge are forcing a reappraisal. But attempts at what I’ll call “censure reform” can be as ludicrous as censures themselves.
According to the Daily Post, city councilmembers in Palo Alto this summer proposed reforming the censure procedure in order to reserve it for serious matters. Under the proposal, censure would require a super-majority vote, a procedure for council members to defend their behavior, and a choice between three different tiers of censure for different actions.
Maybe Palo Alto is comfortable enough to waste time on such nonsense. But most California communities don’t have that luxury in these apocalyptic times.
So, here’s a suggestion to local officials. Take the time you’re wasting on censures, and spend it visiting with colleagues in other local governments. Together you could develop a constitutional amendment to increase the power of local governments, so you can apply yourselves to things that really matter.
(Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column and is the democracy editor of Zócalo Public Square where this article was first featured.)