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Police watchdog threatens lawsuit

Claims mayor chilled his free speech during February meeting

Aram James, a former public defender and vocal critic of the Palo Alto Police Department, is threatening to sue the city, alleging Mayor Jim Burch violated his right to free speech during a council meeting earlier this year.

During the Feb. 7 meeting, James spoke against the city’s plan to put the Human Relations Commission in charge of hearing complaints against police officials and reviewing new department policies.

While James was talking that night, Burch cut him off, accusing him of verbally attacking City Manager Frank Benest. A heated exchange between the two ensued. After a brief break, Burch allowed James to speak uninterrupted.

In an April 4 letter to City Attorney Gary Baum, Tim James -- Aram James’ brother and attorney -- argued that the mayor violated the U.S. and California constitutions and the state’s open-meeting law by stopping his brother from speaking. The mayor "chilled the future exercise of fundamental free-speech rights by Mr. James and any other member of the public who might wish to criticize the performance of the Palo Alto City Council."

He wrote that James "is prepared to seek relief from the courts if necessary, but would prefer to resolve this matter without litigation."

The attorney’s letter asks for an apology from the mayor, for a new section of the City Council’s protocols to be added to reiterate that the public has right to criticize any public official’s performance, and for reimbursements for legal costs.

On Wednesday morning, Burch noted that after the brief break James got to speak without interruption.

"He was not denied the right to speak," Burch said. "In fact he was given more time to speak than anybody else that evening." He noted he had not yet seen the letter, but characterized James as being "obstreperous" and "accusatory."

Asked if he would interrupt James again in a similar situation, Burch said: "I certainly would."

According to the City Council’s official protocols, the mayor has the right to enforce decorum at a council meeting. According to the city’s municipal code, it is a misdemeanor for a speaker at a council meeting to disrupt the meeting or make threats "against any person or against public order and security."

Tim James, referring to a videotape of the meeting, argued his brother did neither.

Baum, the city attorney, also had not seen the letter Wednesday morning, and refused to comment.

If James sues, he would be the second member of his family to do so this year. Last week, his fiancé’s son, Jameel Douglas, sued the city. Lawyers for the Gunn High School student accused Police Officer Brad Kilpatrick of using unnecessary force while giving Douglas a ticket for skateboarding without a helmet in March 2004.

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