Commissioners debate free speech


In another installment in the series of verbal clashes over free speech, the Planning Commission Monday again debated whether members may communicate independently with the press.

In a previous meeting, Commissioner Charleen Kabrin chided Commissioners Ed Lipnick and Ken Kearsley for airing their views on the proposed hillside housing ordinance in letters to local newspapers. Doing so, Kabrin said, could “politicize” an issue and interfere with the commissioners’ work.

At Monday’s meeting, Lipnick responded to the criticism by arguing that it is “perfectly appropriate” for commission members to express their views on ordinances and zoning laws in the press.

Lipnick said he sees the Planning Commission as serving both quasi-judicial and legislative functions, and that the dual roles permitted more freedom of expression when the commission is addressing changes to local laws. Expressing an opinion in advance of a hearing on a variance request, he said, would be “incorrect.”

But drafting a proposed ordinance is “definitely a political function,” he said. “And in a political function, it is perfectly appropriate to discuss, to lobby to try and convert people to your point of view.”

He said he did not regard Kabrin’s earlier comments as a personal attack, “but to accuse someone of politicizing a political matter is very strange.”

Chair Jo Ruggles, who had not weighed in during the previous clashes over freedom of expression, disputed Lipnick’s assertion that politics could not be avoided on the Planning Commission. She said commission members are expected to set their political and personal agendas aside.

“When I was chair in the past, I made it very clear to the commissioners that this body would not be a political forum for personal politics,” she said.

Ruggles said she wanted the commissioner to “stick strictly to the issues” and not engage in personal attacks. “While I’m chair, we’re going to try and follow that,” she said.

Vice Chair Andrew Stern then inadvertently offered up an example of one of the challenges of free speech: how political expression by one person may be read by another as a personal insult.

He complained that a letter to the editor from Kearsley on the hillside housing ordinance had offended him. In that letter, Kearsley complained about a vote the commission had taken, and he closed with the Biblical quotation, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”

Stern said he understood the letter to be communicating that the majority of the commission did not understand the matter on which they had voted.

“I resented that,” he said. “And I think it was wrong and personally offensive.”

Kearsley attempted to respond to Stern’s comments, but Ruggles would not permit him to speak.

In other matters, the commission, in a unanimous vote, granted a homeowner on Malibu Beach Road the right to extend his deck further out than the zoning code allows. On a 3-to-2 vote, with Lipnick and Kearsley voting no, the commission refused to approve the site plan review for two homes on Gayton Place, one 24 feet high and the other standing 26 feet. Ruggles and Kabrin said the houses were too large and were not consistent with the neighborhood in Zuma Canyon.