After more than two hours and nearly three dozen speakers addressing the Newport Beach City Council about Councilman Scott Peotter’s email newsletter that contained his comments about the Supreme court’s decision on same sex marriage and his possible misuse of the city seal, council approved a resolution that reaffirms the city’s support for a diverse community and directed staff to return with a few follow up items of action for the council to consider.
The motion carried 4-3, with councilmen Peotter, Marshall “Duffy” Duffield and Kevin Muldoon dissenting. Muldoon explained that he didn’t support the resolution as written because he felt it hindered free speech, was overly-broad and unconstitutional. Duffield remained silent for the entire conversation and did not comment on the item.
The three items that will come back to council for consideration are: A formal censure motion regarding Peotter; forwarding possible municipal code violations regarding misuse of the city seal to the Orange County District Attorney; and revising the city code for clearer rules about using the city seal.
The special meeting (which began prior to the previously announced council meeting) was called by Mayor Ed Selich following an email newsletter sent by Peotter on July 6 that offered his opinion on the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
Peotter’s newsletter had at the top an image of the Newport Beach City Seal, his name, and the words City Council.
Underneath that header was an image of the White House with rainbow lighting on it and men embracing in front.
The newsletter read, “I know, The Supreme Court (that would be 5 out of 9 guys in black robes) decided 10 days ago to overturn 5,000 years of Judeo – Christian tradition, by redefining and allowing gay marriage. All of a sudden, a lot of the “important stuff” of the city didn’t seem so important. I like how the White House is really quick on the “important” stuff like this rainbow lighting. I do find it interesting that the homosexual movement adopted the rainbow as their symbol, as it was God’s symbol that he wouldn’t destroy the world by flood again….Maybe they are ‘wishful thinking…’”
That prompted an email response from Kevin O’Grady, the executive director of the LGBT Center OC.
“The homophobic message…appears on the site of a Newport Beach City Council member, Scott Peotter,” O’Grady wrote to supporters. “Not only is it disturbing that an elected city official would give voice to such homophobic beliefs, but that his statement appears under the seal of the City of Newport Beach is even more disturbing.”
Peotter provided this response: “It is a shame that OC LGBT Center spokesman Kevin O’Grady, who likes to position himself as a fighter of hate, name calling, and tolerance resorts to hate, name calling, and intolerance when someone legitimately disagrees with a political position that isn’t in line with his.”
On Tuesday, Peotter apologized, but stood his ground.
“It was never my intent to inflame the community, LGBT community or the citizens of Newport Beach… I was stating an opinion on a prominent issue of the day,” Peotter said. “Please accept my apologies if you were insulted by my position on same sex marriage because that was not my intent.”
Peotter said he did not want anyone to think that the other council members shared his views, and he apologized to staff and that he did not intend to create a hostile work environment.
He still disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision and his viewpoint on same sex marriage remains the same.
“It doesn’t change my deeply held religious beliefs,” Peotter said. “I do not believe in same sex marriage.”
Peotter agreed to be more careful in the future and to remove the city seal photo from his future newsletter mailings. Mayor Ed Selich also asked him to remove the original version of the newsletter that contained the photo of the city seal from Peotter’s website.
“Councilmember Peotter is entitled to his opinions but he should choose a platform where his personal opinions cannot be confused with or misconstrued to be city policy,” wrote Selich. “On Wednesday morning I asked Mr. Peotter to remove the city seal from his emails, web site and collateral material so that the public does not confuse his personal views with city policy.”
As of Thursday morning, the newsletter was still available through online links and Peotter’s facebook page.
Earlier on Tuesday, Peotter sent out another newsletter (without the city seal photo) asking supporters to attend the council meeting, although the newsletter was sent by “Scott Peotter—Newport Beach City Council” and had a newsletter headline under Peotter’s name that read “Newport Beach City Councilman.”
“The mayor has agendized an item in response chastising me for using the city seal and trying to limit the free speech of the minority of the council,” Peotter wrote.
The email, titled “Newport Beach Council Update Freedom of Speech – NOT,” asked supporters to speak at the meeting about free speech and religious liberties.
“The LGBT crowd is rallying their supporters to come to tonight’s council meeting to harass me and ask for my resignation,” Peotter wrote in Tuesday’s message.
He also explained why the city seal photo was missing from the header of his newsletter.
“I used this picture, in a picture montage, in a private email, from my personal email account, that stated it was paid for by Scott Peotter for City Council 2014,” he wrote. “Yet somehow people were confused as to who I was representing”
Newport Beach City Councilman Keith Curry sent an email prior to the city council meeting that read, “In light of yet another example of councilman Scott Peotter violating Section 1.16.050 of the Newport Beach Municipal Code by misusing the city seal for his own political purposes, I will propose on Tuesday July 14 that the city attorney bring back to council a revised municipal code provision that clearly and unambiguously prohibits the use of the city seal, in any form, for personal political pronouncements, campaign fundraising, personal attacks and the expression of personal opinions that have not been previously authorized by the city council or staff.”
City Attorney Aaron Harp explained the confusion during Tuesday’s meeting. City staff received numerous inquiries from the public about whether the position set forth in that email was the position of the city or if that was his personal position, he said.
The policy presented Tuesday was designed to prevent confusion going forward between when council members are expressing their personal opinions and when they are reflecting a position held by the entire city council as a body, Harp said.
The basis of the policy is basically to avoid confusion by the public; it’s not regulating the content of speech. It’s viewpoint-neutral, narrowly tailored and should withstand judicial scrutiny, Harp said.
The resolution also reaffirmed the city’s support for a diverse and inclusive community.
Peotter liked the part of the resolution that reaffirmed the city’s support for a diverse community, but he took issue with the first section of the resolution that requires Council members who express personal opinions to ensure that they cannot be construed as the city’s position or official policy. It creates an imposition on the free speech rights of the current and future councils, Peotter argued.
Peotter also asked that a few points (the “whereas…” paragraphs that explain Peotter’s email and express concern about confusion) be struck from the resolution.
“If we’re truly looking at making this a statement on where we stand on diversity and how we stand on free speech and freedom of religion, then the personal attacks don’t need to be there,” Peotter said. “If you want to do a separate section on censuring me, I would understand that. But I wouldn’t combine the two because it implies that I don’t agree with diversity, which is not true and I resent it.”
The resolution and the package were designed as a compromise, Councilman Keith Curry responded.
“And having listened to council member Peotter, he has, with more eloquence than I could ever muster, demonstrated the need of why I believe we need an additional resolution,” Curry said.
The vast majority of the nearly 30 public speakers at the meeting agreed with Curry. Most supported the resolution and were offended by Peotter’s remarks.
The first speaker, Corona del Mar resident Alison Carr, told the council that “as long as we keep spewing bigotry at the city council level, it looks like it’s ok to do that at home and in schools…it is not ok, not with my children, we pay our tax money for this outrage? We honestly look like Donald Trump. The nation is laughing at us.”
Robert Craig, a 34-year Newport resident, said that he supports Peotter’s use of free speech, no matter how offensive it may be, as long as he clarifies his opinion and doesn’t use the city seal so people don’t get it confused with the city’s official stance on the subject.
Craig asserted that Peotter had violated the city of Newport Beach code of conduct by using the city seal.
Brad Dacus, a lawyer and founder of the Pacific Justice Institute, said he was committed to defending the first amendment rights of the Constitution, and that if the City Council passed the resolution, it would not hold up in court. Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp later told the City Council that he disagreed with that summation, and that the wording of the resolution is appropriate.
Laura Cantor with the LGBT Center said that “We are not here to debate the first amendment, we are here to talk about what is appropriate of a civic leader,” and that when a person in a position of leadership uses that civic leadership to bully a minority group, “they are endorsing bullying and violence.”
Kevin O’Grady, Executive Director of LGBT Center of OC, told the council that “his alarm, his concern, has nothing to do with his opinion. You have the right to express yourself on any opinion you please. I completely agree with the lawyer from the Pacific Institute, which I never thought I would say, but when your expression crosses the line of decency and becomes hate speech, that’s a different matter and your statement should be condemned. The resolution the city council is considering this evening is almost meaningless. The municipal code already makes Mr. Peotter’s use of the seal illegal.”
O’Grady noted that a stronger resolution had been circulated among the council members but a couple members opposed it so it is not being considered.
“To those opposing a stronger resolution of censure, you have aligned yourself with Mr. Peotter and his statement…If you cannot officially condemn his words, we will hold you accountable.”
O’Grady said that he has received countless emails from employees of the city of Newport Beach who “before your email, generally felt safe working for the city. Now they are afraid that department managers will find in your words permission for them to express homophobia and discriminate against them. You have singularly turned the city of Newport Beach into a hostile work environment.”
O’Grady asked for a resolution of censure that condemns Peotter’s statements.
Other speakers called for Council Member Peotter to apologize or resign, and even mentioned a possible recall, while a few spoke in support of Peotter and his right to free speech.
Other public comments included accusations of bigotry, homophobia, discrimination, and bullying, suggestions that Peotter should focus on the “important stuff” of real city issues and legitimate council business, statements from locals that Peotter does not represent their opinions, and concerns for children who may hear his comments.
Several became emotional while addressing the topic. Some encouraged Peotter to attend sensitivity training and/or educational meetings and learn more about the LGBT community. A few referenced sections of the bible. Others pointed out that nobody has exclusive rights to a rainbow. Locals noted that this is an embarrassment for the city and a waste of staff time and resources.
Other supporters said his comments should be protected and allowed as free speech and that he should be able to publicly state his views without fear of reprisal.
Once public comments were finished, individual council members had their chance to speak.
Council Member Tony Petros said there have been requests wanting to know how the other council members feel about this.
“I am saddened that we’re here doing this, I resent the fact that we have taken up two hours of official matter that need not have come before the city of Newport Beach. I am sorry and apologize to you, whatever your opinion, that you had to take the time out of your busy schedule to join us tonight.”
Petros shared his personal belief that we are all God’s children, and it is not up to him to judge. “I pledge allegiance in a country that starts out that all men are created equal…we have to be a compassionate community. This city is not a discriminatory city, it will not become one. That’s the Newport that I represent.”
Council Member Kevin Muldoon said his primary concern was with free speech, and he supported the right to do so, and would not support the proclamation as written.
Council Member Keith Curry said the resolution should be adopted. Curry said Peotter is free to share his opinions, but that the council members have responsibilities.
“The action of putting the city seal on a personal communication is simply illegal and violates the municipal code,” stated Curry, who cited several personal communications from Peotter that included the use of the city seal. “We cannot tolerate a council member that violates the law with assumed impunity.”
Curry asked for a new city code so that this never happens again, and asked to bring back to a future meeting a resolution of censure.
Mayor Pro Tem Diane Dixon voiced her support for the resolution, and that it was important to state that the city is an open and welcoming community.
After further discussion of the wording in the resolution, and an opinion by Council Member Muldoon that the resolution would not stand up in court as written and that sections referring to Council Member Peotter be struck, the resolution passed as written.
To watch a video of the council meeting and read the complete resolution, visit NewportBeachCa.gov.