Hanford Planning Commissioner Jason Kemp Van Ee could face possible removal for his comments on Hanford City Council Member Kalish Morrow’s Facebook page and on his private page. This according to a June 9 letter sent to him from the law firm Griswold La Salle and signed by City Attorney Ty Mizote.
“Should you continue to engage in false or offensive unprotected speech, the City Council may consider disciplinary actions since Commissioners serve at the will of the council,” the letter stated.
Kemp Van Ee claims his freedom of speech was violated
Kemp Van Ee said wherever he criticizes the city council his comments are removed from Morrow and Mayor Francisco Ramirez’s official Facebook page.
“Both of them don’t like being criticized,” said Kemp Van Ee.
“Council Member Art Brieno was censured for his treatment of a city employee yet council members (Art) Brieno, Morrow and Ramirez are treating me unfairly,” he said.
“There is a parallel to the Mata situation,” said Kemp Van Ee. “There’s no consistency to the council.”
Despite Kemp Van Ee’s insistence that his comments were deleted, on inspection of Morrow’s facebook, about a dozen of his comments are visible in a contentious thread on her May 5 post.
In that thread, Kemp Van Ee stated, “The council is a clown show and makes our city look like a circus. Lawsuits are generally public record, I can do a public records request to prove the frivolousness if you’d like. When this circus starts to stand up and support their employees, they will no longer be classified as clown show. Only Hanford allows a council member to belittle a city employee, or allow council members to use their title and power for personal gain, or allows a council member to resign, vacate their seat for weeks and then return no questions asked. So, yes it’s a clown show!”
This was one of numerous statements of Kemp Van Ee describing the Hanford City Council as a clown show.
Ramirez said that he hasn’t seen any comments by Kemp Van Ee on his official Facebook page and if he did see critical comments he wouldn’t delete them.
“By all means show me the screen shots,” said Ramirez when told that Kemp Van Ee insisted his comments had been deleted.
Not only did Kemp Van Ee call the council a “clown show” on Facebook but he expressed his displeasure at the council’s handling of Brieno’s sexual harassment case involving Hanford Community Development Director Darlene Mata.
“To have Art make comments about a city employee (and) resign and not resign … then the council bends over and accepts” the situation is deplorable, Kemp Van Ee said.
Kemp Van Ee’s posts on his personal Facebook has also brought threats of removal from the from the city attorney.
Mizote’s letter stated: “Statements that you have made online have drawn complaints, and Mayor Ramirez, City Manager (Mario)Cifuentez, and I requested a meeting with you to discuss the matter. It was our intent to work with you to address the complaints involving inaccurate statements and racial and religious statements.”
The alleged offensive post was a disagreement about critical race theory.
A February 28 post by Kemp Van Ee on his personal Facebook shows a poster which shows a hand with two fingers in a V for victory pose and, in part, states, “White Privilege exists when … America has all of the following … white caucus, white entertainment tv, white only scholarships.” The poster goes on: “Until then … the only Privilege That Exists is #Liberal Privilege.”
“All of it (is) a way of censoring me,” said Kemp Van Ee.
Kemp Van Ee said that he has worked as a social worker for many years and has never been accused of bias.
Mizote’s letter referred to a court case (Tindle v Caudell 1995 56F.3d966) where a police officer lost his job for his manner of dress at a party while off duty. His dress offended African-American members of his department. The officer said his dress was protected speech but the court disagreed, Mizote said.
Kemp Van Ee said his attorney said that Van Ee’s situation is not the same because the police officer was paid and Kemp Van Ee is a volunteer.
Another first amendment rights attorney who withheld his name said that there are some serious first amendment concerns with the letter that Griswold, LaSalle sent Kemp Van Ee.
The letter has the same effect as a temporary restraining order against Kemp Van Ee to stop speaking about city issues, said the lawyer.
Cities governments are not allowed to tell council members to stop talking publicly just because they don’t like what the member is saying, but it’s a gray area concerning a planning commissioner, said the lawyer.
“But it’s always better to let people speak,” said the lawyer. “This is the United States.”
To remove or not
Complicating matters is the fact that Kemp Van Ee has made public that he plans on running against Brieno–who is seen as a political ally of Ramirez and Morrow–when Brieno is up for re-election in November 2022.
Kemp Van Ee’s claim that Ramirez and Morrow removed his comments appears to be false. But the letter from Griswold and LaSalle is real and can be seen as a mechanism to silence him.
When asked if he would support the removal of Kemp Van Ee, Ramirez said yes.
“When you sign on to be a planning commissioner there is a handbook of rules and ethics,” said Ramirez. “And if you violate the rules and ethics there are going to be consequences.”
Ramirez said that a regular resident can say whatever they want, “but a planning commissioner is dealing with million-dollar decisions, and if you are biased the city could get sued.”
Morrow said that Kemp Van Ee’s disrespectful and condescending comments on her facebook “crossed the line,” and she contacted Cifuentes with screen shots of his comments. After Kemp Van Ee declined to meet with Cifuentes, the letter from Griswold and La Salle was sent.
“If you want to have a conversation in private, that’s different. But his facebook page is open to the public. It’s OK to be critical, but his comments cross the line with his name-calling, misinformation and condescending attitude,” said Morrow.
Morrow felt that Kemp Van Ee’s behavior has been unbecoming of a person representing the city and his comments “make it look unattractive for developers to work in Hanford.”
Given Kemp Van Ee’s behavior, Morrow said, “Yes, I would support removing him if the decision came in front of the council.”