By Ruth Musser-Lopez
Offprinted from the Sentinel. ☆
Historically, governments of the United States of America abided by
Robert's Rules of Order in conducting their meetings: a motion, a second, discussion and
then comments by the public before a vote. Twenty-four years ago, the San Bernardino
County Board of Supervisors, which then included Bob Hammock, Marcia Turoci, Jon Mikels,
Larry Walker and Barbara Riordan, instituted a 3-minute rule, limiting the time a member of
the public was allowed to address issues, including items on the agenda or issues of concern
to the speaker.
The "3-Minute Rule," as most traditionally knew it, was a phrase
concerning the amount of time one should leave eggs in boiling water. In a
metaphorical sense, it still is in the minds of our elected officials who continue to
enforce it. Three minutes in their mind is enough for their constituents to "stew"
Those who dared to come before the board with complaints on how the
county government was being run, those brave enough to comment for the public record on an
item on or off the agenda, were limited to 3-minutes all up front before a motion was even
Between 1989 and 2004 on 157 occasions, the meeting gavel procured
the arrest and/or removal of various speakers from San Bernardino County government
meetings for breaching the 3-minute rule and commenting without being recognized by the
gavel according to Bob Nelson who has faithfully kept a running tally (Ephemeral Press,
9/24/13). Those who broke the rule were not just in hot water; they were actually
arrested and imprisoned, sometimes for months. Indeed, Jeff Wright, a recurrent
speaker before the board, once spent six months in jail for having exceeded the time a
member of the public was permitted to speak in the forum of a board meeting.
First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress
The right to petition government for redress of grievances is the right to make a complaint to,
or seek the assistance of, one's government, without fear of punishment or reprisals.
Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed,
nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Definition of Draconian: adjective meaning great severity, that
derives from Draco, an Athenian law scribe, under whom small offenses had heavy punishments
Beginning on June 12, 1989, Bob Nelson was the first to be arrested
and censored for violation of Penal Code §
then a 5-minute rule. A month later the 3-Minute Rule was in place and on July 24, 1989,
Bob Nelson was arrested and censored for violation of it.
Supervisor Mikels, who was also a member of the South Coast Air
Quality Control District Board, is believed to be the first official to apply the speaking
limit standard explored by San Bernardino County, when as chairman of the air quality panel,
he applied it at one of the district meetings. The idea spread to other local
government representatives throughout the Southland. After the San Bernardino County
Board of Supervisors adopted the rule, local governments throughout the county followed
suit. The idea was even adopted by local governments outside of the County of San
Champions publicly protesting governmental waste, abuse, fraud, poor
planning, bad decisions and corruption have been a reality throughout our country's history;
but the silencing of speech (i.e., freedom) in the world via arrest was something that World
War II was to have ended.
In San Bernardino County, citizens began to be
arrested or removed from public meetings for their speech beginning in 1989: Bob Nelson,
Craig Himmler, Jeff Wright, Larry Singleton, Grace Lester, Marjorie Mikels, Shirley Goodwin,
Dennis Pankey and even, on one occasion, yours truly, me, the author of this column, Ruth
Musser-Lopez. Jeff Wright spent the maximum six months in prison for breaking the 3-minute
rule while exposing Supervisor Gerald Eaves' unlawful activities while in office.
Eaves was subsequently the target of both federal and state indictments on political
corruption charges, which ultimately resulted in his removal from office.
3-Minute Rule originated from a 'Culture of Corruption.'
On September 24, 2003, the Los Angeles Times, in an article titled
"Freedom's Test or Just a Pest" reported "arrests and removal in San Bernardino County have
involved about a dozen regulars, some of who are known to pepper the board with nonsensical
The author of that article, Hugo Martin, relied on the
representations made about these so-called regular gadflies by the county's politicians, who
in many cases were the object of the protests inherent in the gadflies' comments.
Others had a different opinion with regard to the content and relevancy of the speech. In my
view, all nine arrested were cogent, intelligent people who were raising legitimate issues
and objecting to actions and a culture of corruption during an extended period of time -
nearly two decades - that included Eaves' tenure, and those of indicted and convicted former
county administrative officer Harry Mays, indicted and convicted former county administrator
James Hlawek, indicted and convicted former county treasurer Tom O'Donnell, indicted and
convicted former county investment officer Sol Levin and indicted and convicted former San
Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus.
Of those arrested for
too-longwinded speaking at the meetings, not all were "regulars." Some were arrested
for having made a single impassioned presentation on an issue of public importance.
Some of these gadflies were downright eloquent. Others were articulate. Some were
fulsome in their commentary. All were sincere. None merited having their First
Amendment rights to express themselves and petition their government for a redress of
Initially, it was just one person being arrested -- Robert "Bob"
Nelson. Characteristically "reserved" and soft spoken in speech, this retired systems
analyst and long time resident of Summit Valley was 48 years old when he first resisted
the county's speech rule in 1989. He was arrested at 9 more meetings, tried and found
guilty 3-times in 1989 and 1990 spending three months in jail for violation of the 3-minute
rule. But on August 3, 1993, others joined him. Nelson was arrested along with
Craig Himmler who was removed for content of speech and Jeff Wright for words from the
floor. In the 10 months that followed Nelson was arrested 9 more times, Wright, a
retired United States Air Force veteran, was arrested 5 more times. At that point, it
was indeed true that Wright and Nelson qualified as "regulars." Nevertheless, the
number of citizens whose intimidated speech was cut short or who chose not to speak at all
for fear of arrest are countless.
City of San Bernardino wrestles with 3-minutes.
Five years after its institution by the county, the city of San
Bernardino on May 17, 1994 started arresting people for violation of the 3-minute
rule. Mr. Larry Singleton refused to yield the rostrum after three minutes and
insisted on being formally arrested if he was to be ejected from the meeting. The
mayor and a retired peace officer, left the dais and grabbed Singleton from behind.
According to Nelson (Ephemeral Press, 9/24/2013) "all three men wound up wrestling on the
floor...about the time the mace went off...with a class of grade school children in attendance
(with tears in their eyes) to see their government in action." Using Fire Department fans, it
took two hours to clear the chambers of the mace set off by the arresting officer. (id bid)
I was next. My personal experience was that on June 13, 1995, I
was pulled away from my seven-year old daughter sitting quietly next to me. A
uniformed officer took me by the arm to escort me to the back of the room where, once out of
sight of the camera, I was put in a totally unnecessary and excruciatingly painful
hammerlock, then handcuffed. The only thing that those left in the chambers heard was
my scream of agony during the officer's hammerlock move on me. The offense? I
had protested when it was announced that there would be no opportunity for public comment on
the agenda item I came to speak on. My then seven-year-old daughter and I had just
driven four hours across the desert from eastern San Bernardino County to protest the
dumping of radioactive waste in San Bernardino County. She was left crying in her
chair next to her aunt, my sister, Marjorie Mikels.
Arbeitrary and Capricious
Marjorie Mikels, a graduate of UCLA School of Law scoring at the top
of her class in constitutional law, a long time Upland attorney and resident, was removed
from the chambers of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on March 25, 1997 after
speaking on time donated by another person in the audience...donation of time is apparently
not provided for in the 3-minute rule.
A year later, on October 20, 1998, Supervisor Eaves, then the board
chairman, had Marjorie arrested prior to the expiration of her allotted 3-minute speaking
time as she was weighing in against the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump. Three
months later, while her husband Jon was serving as board chairman, she was escorted out of
the hearing chambers by deputies for speaking on an issue that was not contained in the
meeting agenda. According to the Los Angeles Times (Martin, 2003) "Mikels now rarely
attends the meetings, saying the arrest lost her a job as a Sunday school teacher.
'They are using the meeting rules to gut the 1st Amendment,' she said."
Grace Lester had become a "regular" at the board meetings with
protest signs exposing a local judge as a pedophile after her own grandchildren, involved in
a custody dispute, were awarded to an alleged child molester. On November 17, 1998,
Lester was arrested for "words from the floor" when she briefly expressed her indignation
after Supervisor Eaves told a speaker he had no standing to comment on how the board spent
taxpayer dollars because the speaker was "unemployed." The district attorney's office
charged Lester with disturbing a public meeting but a judge dismissed the case before trial
when it was revealed that the volume had been tampered with on the videotape deputy district
attorney Beth Houser intended to use as evidence against the then 59-year old grandmother.
(Hesperia Reporter, 7/1/1999).
The arrests continued between 1998 and 2002, most made on Jeff Wright
for unstated reasons or content; but occasionally included Nelson, Mikels and Lester.
However, in 2000, Shirley Goodwin was arrested. The interesting thing about this
arrest is that she was cited on the first removal under Penal Code §§
for words from the
floor. Significant to this arrest was its effect upon her career. Goodwin was
distinguished as being the first woman sheriff sergeant in San Bernardino County. She
became aware of the corruption in the county; then she was forced to retire when she refused to
cover up an internal crime.
"In 2000, reports of those arrests earned the board of supervisors
the "Black Hole" award, a dubious distinction given by the California First Amendment
Coalition to public agencies and officials that the group says show disregard for open
government and 1st Amendment rights," according to the Los Angeles Times. (Martin, 2003)
Admission of the true problem finally came after the arrest of
former county administrative officer James Hlawek, for having taken bribes. In his
confession to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on September 21, 2000, Hlawek said
that Wright was a particularly unwelcome speaker at board meetings because he exposed a
"longstanding, wide-ranging culture of corruption... involving conflicts of interest,
sweetheart deals and payoffs"
operated out of the County Administrative Office. (Source:
Ephemeral Press 9/24/2013 "as reported in the San Bernardino Sun, August 30, 2001")
Through 2003 and 2004, the pace of arrests and removals at San
Bernardino County supervisors' meetings increased to about one per month mainly because of
Grace Lester being arrested a dozen times; but Jeff Wright, Bob Nelson, Marjorie Mikels and
additionally Dennis Pankey were also arrested during that period, with most speakers being
removed for content, mainly failing to stick to the Board's own agenda and then refusing to
surrender the lectern.
At the November 5, 2002 board meeting, Wright was arrested when,
after the board chairman expressed surprise that no speakers had shown up for a public
hearing on that day's agenda, Wright blurted, "Maybe they weren't notified."
Intentionally chilling Free Speech and public participation.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment
Coalition, told the Los Angeles Times at that point "I haven't heard of anybody nearly as
restrictive as San Bernardino County." Francke expressed concern that the arrests were
stifling free speech and discouraging citizens from bringing grievances before their elected
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern
California said "If you are a member of the board of supervisors, you have to be willing to
listen to your constituents and give them some leeway to say what they want to say."
The Los Angeles Times noted in 2003 that San Bernardino
County supervisors were limiting the public's ability to comment on public issues by placing
nearly 90% of its meeting items on the
which does not require a public hearing." (Martin 2003).
Ceasing enforcement by arrest.
Finally bringing an end to enforcement via arrest was the trial of
Bob Nelson that grew out of his breach of the 3-Minute Rule on June 29, 2004 when he
expressed concerns regarding items on the "consent calendar," numerous items to be approved
in total with one vote of the supervisors. The case filed on that arrest was dismissed
at it's first court appearance.
Beginning with the board's September 21, 2004 meeting, the 3-Minute
Rule was no longer enforced by arrest. Instead a kill switch on the rostrum mike is
now used as enforcement. While the board currently gives some leeway as an additional
30 seconds or as deemed appropriate, this is not the case for every local governing body or
Persisting, however, is something far worse than the 3-minute
rule. At some point during the late 1990s, the 3-Minute Rule came into such prominence
in San Bernardino County local government that it morphed into a 3-Minute Rule of Order
replacing Robert's Rules of Order. Before his passing, William "Bill" Kemp, a Santa Fe
Railroad engineer and former Mayor of Needles became a "regular" in the audience at the
city's council meetings protesting the discarding of Robert's Rules and warning of speech
Direct infringement of rights.
Instead of 3 minutes per agenda item...the beleaguered member of the
public got 3 minutes up front of the meeting and no time at all after the explanation and
discussion on the subject by officials prior to the vote. Robert's Rules of Order,
once taught in our public schools as the standard of public meeting governance, was
yanked. Robert's Rules of Order, a tool of civility and assurance that citizens can
express their viewpoint with regard to the framing of official public policy, has been
replaced in San Bernardino County by the 3-Minute Rule for the past 24 years.
Not only does the 3-minute rule abbreviate and curtail comment, it
makes it difficult or impossible for cogent and timely debate to take place. Robert's
Rules of Order provides the framework for the introduction of an item, a motion, a second, a
discussion by the voting members, and then a time for comment by the public before the
actual vote. The 3-minute rule allows public comment before the dialogue among voting
members commences. It does not allow the public to actually participate in the
discussion with their elected officials.
I believe a fitting New Year's Resolution for 2014 would be to
restore the historic Robert's Rules of Order to the local governments in the County of San
Bernardino everywhere. Using whatever civil action that one can take-hold... signs, wear
buttons, tell others, use public comment time at government meetings, even protest
events. Let's insist that candidates for office include restoration of Robert's Rules
on their campaign platform. If we make this a universal campaign issue, we can then
vote in 2014 only for those who will "restore Robert's Rules."
• • •
☆ This story was previously published in the
San Bernardino County Sentinel
(http://sbsentinel.com) on December 27, 2013 (we recommend clicking on their website's top
bold PDF link, then on the date). Author Ruth Musser-Lopez can be reached directly at
(760) 885-9374 or office @ RiverAHA.com. She has an archaeological services website located at
http://RiverAHA.org. Ruth's family roots go deep
in San Bernardino county's farming history and she is aligned with the Newberry Springs
Community Alliance, and a coalition of others,
the Cadiz water project. She is an active supporter of the Route 66
Management Plan, a regular county historian contributor to the San Bernardino County Sentinel,
and a former city councilwoman of Needles, California.