Newport Beach City Council this week decided against a censure of Councilman Scott Peotter, instead voting to “disassociate” the city from his recent email about same-sex marriage.
Council voted 4-3 Tuesday on a revised, more lenient resolution following more than two hours of discussion. Councilmen Peotter, Marshall “Duffy” Duffield and Kevin Muldoon dissented.
Peotter said there’s no need for a censure since it’s not clear whether or not he actually misused the city seal, he noted.
“The ordinance is about as clear as mud,” Peotter said. “I don’t think it was a violation.”
The ordinance reads, in part: “No person shall use or allow to be used the official seal of the city of Newport Beach, or any cut, facsimile, or reproduction of said seal…for malicious or commercial purposes, or for any purpose other than for city purposes or for the purposes of any officer, board or department thereof, without the express consent of the City Council of the city of Newport Beach.”
Peotter’s use of the city seal was “simply illegal,” said Councilman Keith Curry, who drafted the original resolution. “We
cannot tolerate council members who believe they can ignore the law with impunity or that the law does not apply to them.”
He encouraged the public to read the city ordinance regarding the official city seal and determine for themselves whether or not the law was violated in “its letter or its spirit,” Curry said.
“This is an emotional issue. It divides the community. There’s no question about it,” Curry said. “Which is why we shouldn’t put the city seal on this kind of material, one way or the other. That’s why that law exists and it’s up to us to enforce it.”
The newsletter in question had an image of the Newport Beach city seal, Peotter’s name, and the words City Council.
Underneath the header was an image of the White House with rainbow lighting on it and men embracing in front.
“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,” the newsletter read.
“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…’” Peotter continued in the newsletter.
In another email sent to subscribers on Monday, Peotter wrote that the attempt to censure him wasn’t truly about his use of the city seal, but rather his opinions on same-sex marriage.
His opponents are using this as a “convenient surrogate for what really upsets them, and what is the real issue – my opposition to same sex marriage,” Peotter argued.
He maintains that he did not misuse the city seal.
“The city ordinance on the use of the seal is very ambiguous, but a reasonable reading would allow that any council member has the right to use the seal at any time for any reason in their capacity as an elected official,” Peotter wrote in Monday’s email newsletter.
On Tuesday, there was a lot of back and forth between Peotter and City Attorney Aaron Harp about the city seal and the city’s ordinance regulating its use.
The two discussed ambiguity of the ordinance, using a photo of the seal versus the actual seal, what constitutes official business, and more.
Harp gave a few vague answers, but did confirm that a national issue doesn’t fall within in city business.
“So you can discuss 90 percent city business, but if you discuss one thing that’s not city business and you’ve got the seal on there, as determined by you (Harp) – or somebody, then you would consider that a violation of the use of the seal?” Peotter questioned.
Regarding the Curry’s point that his comments could create a hostile work environment, Peotter disagreed. The council only hires three positions: City Manager, City Attorney and City Clerk, Peotter pointed out.
“Just because there are issues of the day that we disagree with, it’s ridiculous to sit there and assume that if we take a position on a controversial issue of the day that we could potentially create a hostile work environment,” Peotter said.
Bringing the issue before the council again is just a way Curry can “rub my nose in it,” Peotter said.
He called it a “witch hunt” and said it was detracting from the real city issues.
Mayor Pro Tem Diane Dixon made an alternative motion. She suggested to “disassociate” the city and council from Peotter’s comments rather than censure and disapprove, as was originally written.
As much as she disagrees with what Peotter wrote in his now infamous email, he has the right to express his opinion “without bringing an act of government down on his head,” Dixon said.
Also, the censure will likely inflame the matter rather than calm it, Dixon added.
Peotter’s newsletter with his comments and the city seal started the debate, but now, “it’s time to move on,” Dixon said.
“Clearly what is best for Newport Beach now is that we stop the acrimony and invective over something that, simply, is not a city issue,” Dixon said. “Continuing on this path is dividing the city and tarnishing its reputation nationwide.”
Curry also decided to withdraw his motion to refer it to the District Attorney. A citizen has already referred the issue to the DA, and other residents may as well, and it may not something should do as well, Curry explained.
In another item, council voted 7-0 to prohibit use of the city seal or a photo of the city seal for anything other than official business.
About two dozen members of the audience spoke about the issue during the public comment period.
Speakers commented on the freedom of speech and religion, destroying the city’s reputation, the welcoming and inclusive environment of the city, discriminating against people of faith, and much more.
The special meeting the council held last month on the issue also saw a large number of public speakers, mostly in opposition. This week’s meeting, however, commenters were more evenly split in opinion, with the majority supporting Peotter.
Ben Chapman was one of those who encouraged the council not to censure Peotter.
“(I) believe he has a right to speak his mind freely, whether you agree with him or not,” said Chapman, who identified himself as gay and holding conservative beliefs.
Another opponent of the censure was Lido Isle resident Paul Jensen, who said the resolution “smacks of nothing but petty political correctness.
“Nothing Councilman Peotter wrote was even in the slightest way offensive, much less incorrect or improper,” Jensen said.
What was improper was the judgment the other council members passed onto Peotter for his personal opinions, he added.
Another local, Don Abrams, said giving his opinions on these types of matters is not his job.
“You all have a lot of important business and putting your personal opinion out, under the city seal, is not the business of the council,” said.
“You’re entitled to these opinions. You can write a book about them,” said Balboa Island resident Don Abrams. “But I don’t see that as the job for you, on the city council.”
Walking in the middle ground was resident Bill Dunlap, who said the fighting on the dais needs to stop.
“There’s this catfight going on here, everybody knows it, between two council people,” Dunlap said. “Can we stop that?”
From a parent’s perspective it’s like two kids bickering, he added.
“Can you two try to get along and run the city business?” Dunlap asked, eliciting applause from the audience.