In Closed Session

Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce's recent interaction with the California Highway Patrol, the Long Beach Police Department and her former chief of staff has prompted plenty of water cooler talk and even more speculation.

The situation had quieted down a bit last week. Then Pearce released a lengthy statement saying that she had been the victim of domestic violence and stalking, adding that she had called police. She emphasized in the statement that she had not been stopped by police.

That part's true. Pearce's car was stopped when the CHP officers approached.

But I'm not here to argue the merits or facts of the incident. Pearce and Devin Cotter are both innocent until (and unless) proven guilty.

The question of the day is, what should be done when a public official is involved in something that requires action by law enforcement? Or, for that matter, what should be done when a public official violates the accepted code of conduct for the office he or she holds?

Let's start with the simple (sort of) traffic stop. Most people — including elected officials — agree that it should be handled just like any other traffic stop. If a ticket is warranted, a ticket should be issued. If an arrest would be made if the person wasn't an official, the arrest should be made. This is true for high level management as well as elected officials.

Sometimes, being an official actually plays against you. Where a regular citizen might be let off with a warning, any indication of favoritism for the VIP could cause trouble for both the officer and the VIP. Give 'em the ticket.

But it would be naive to think that there's no change in protocol when the lights land on an elected official. Police Chief Robert Luna said as much after the Pearce incident, saying his department has a set way to advise higher-ups when a political situation is taking shape.

Elected officials and top management are people who have rights too, though. When they're on their own time, in their own vehicle, they have just as much right to screw up as anyone else.

In other words, if something happens when an elected official is not on city business, not in a city vehicle and not on city time, there is little the city can do beyond letting justice take its course.

Once that course has been taken, particularly for a serious crime, there are some alternatives. While the City Charter is mum on qualifications for elected officials beyond a residency requirement, there is a code of conduct, and there are state-based penalties that could be enforced.

But on the whole, an elected official can get into a surprising amount of trouble and stay in office — something that has been proven all too often on the state and national stage.

Instead of relying on legalities to keep our elected officials in line, we typically rely on public pressure. That pressure can come from three different sources.

First, there's us — the media. Stories exposing wrong-doing often are enough by themselves to result in resignations or withdrawal from elections. Does anyone remember Gary Hart? How about John Edwards?

Then there is the elected body. Our state legislature finally kicked one of its members out a couple of years ago after he was convicted of a felony. (Hard to make roll call votes from prison.) More often, a legislative body can vote to censure one of its members. That doesn't have any real consequences beyond a public rebuke and a stand saying the other members don't like what one member did. The Long Beach City Council has voted to censure a member once in the more than 25 years I've been here.

Finally, voters can take things in their own hands in the form of a recall election. This is a time-consuming, sometimes expensive proposition, but remains the ultimate vote of a lack of confidence in an elected official. 

To be sure, the recall route has been misused by cliques determined to get their own way. But that's why it is an election — it is supposed to give everyone a chance to chime in on how their representative's doing.

There is one other option. Don't get into trouble in the first place. I know I'm trying to take that path. Electeds, how about you?

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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