December 24, 2008

I'm spending my Christmas vacation in lovely Maricopa County, AZ, this week with my in-laws. And I have to tell you that, thanks to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his gang of thugs deputies, I'll be somewhat relieved when I leave.

After all, how would you like to live in a place where law enforcement actually arrests you for applauding briefly at a public county council meeting? Where they threaten and intimidate you just for showing up in the first place?

That's what's been happening here.

It all has to do with an anti-Arpaio group called Maricopa Citizens for Safety Accountability, which formed last spring in response to investigative reports and studies demonstrating that Arpaio's insane obsession with illegal immigrants was destroying his office's ability to actually deal with real law enforcement work.

MCSA's members have been turning up at meetings of the county Board of Supervisors and trying to speak, but the board refuses to let MCSA do so except for brief comment periods at the end of its meetings. Moreover, the board meetings are now patrolled by a huge contingent of deputies who treat the citizens who attend like criminals.

Last week, they went even further:

The Board of Supervisors' meetings also have undergone a number of changes since the Maricopa Citizens group began attending.

The supervisors cut the amount of time each member of the public is allowed to speak during the public comment portions of the public meetings. The board permits each speaker two minutes. Previously, the board gave every speaker three minutes.

Generally, eight or nine sheriff's office deputies and county security officers station themselves around the perimeter of the small auditorium where the board holds its meetings. Also, as many as 20 deputies and officers are stationed out-of-view in hallways around the edges of the auditorium and another 20 or so patrol a plaza outside the auditorium's front doors.

In the pre-Maricopa Citizens era, usually a few deputies worked the metal detectors in the auditorium's lobby and a few others remained inside the auditorium.

Most noticeably, deputies and security officers restrict movement within the auditorium, directing spectators to take seats and remain in their seats while the meetings are in session.

Previously, Board of Supervisors meetings were conducted like virtually every other public meeting, at which spectators routinely stand in the aisles and occasionally walk about to confer with other spectators.

In that regard, crowds at most public meetings more closely resemble spectators at a baseball game rather than audience members at a movie theater.

And, of course, deputies and security agents at the Board of Supervisors meetings have begun to arrest spectators. That development came Wednesday.

During the meeting, Board of Supervisors chairman Andy Kunasek warned spectators that they were being disruptive by applauding speakers, but deputies neither dismissed nor arrested spectators who applauded an animal advocate or a public transportation advocate who sang a birthday song for Kunasek.

The scene was different when about 15 spectators stood and clapped for 20 seconds after a Maricopa Citizens group member spoke critically of Arpaio during her turn at the lectern.

Deputies arrested Joel Nelson, Jason Odhner, Monica Sandschafer and Kristy Theilen on allegations of disorderly conduct and trespassing.

Odhner is a member of the Maricopa Citizens. Nelson, Sandschafer and Theilen are members of ACORN. ACORN has been closely aligned with the Maricopa Citizens during the anti-Arpaio campaign.

Odhner is black. The other three are white. Early Friday morning, three deputies appeared at Terán's home to give her a disorderly conduct citation linked to her role at Wednesday's meeting. Terán is Hispanic.

Deputies made the arrests in a clear attempt to intimidate people associated with Maricopa Citizens, said Carlos Calindo, who attended the meeting.

"It is incredible the way they behaved," said Calindo, who is not a member of the citizens organization. "You come in there and the atmosphere is incredibly oppressive. They yell at you. They scold you. They try to intimidate you. It is improper."

I have been to literally hundreds if not thousands of public meetings (city and county councils, school board sessions, so on) over the years and have never witnessed anything like this. I bet most Americans haven't either.

I guess it's OK in Arizona. Which is why I'm looking forward to leaving.

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