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Vista lifts its restrictions on protests outside Issa's office - San Diego U-T

By Teri FigueroaContact Reporter

Weeks after telling protesters they could no longer stand on the sidewalk in front of Rep. Darrell Issa’s district office and had to follow other rules, Vista city officials have reversed course and granted the demonstrators a new three-month permit.

The city’s previous restrictions — requiring protesters to stand across the street and limit the use of amplified sound — had been criticized by the ACLU, which said the conditions were infringing on citizens’ right to assemble. The new permit, granted Tuesday evening, lifts all the conditions and runs through the end of September.

“I am so pleased that the city responded positively to the ACLU and me about the freedom of speech rights of the rally participants and Issa’s constituents,” said Ellen Montanari, who organizes the weekly rallies.

Since January, those hour-long gathering have drawn a few hundred protesters, many of whom are retirees, each Tuesday morning to the Thibodo Road building that houses Issa’s office. The demonstrators — some of whom belong to activist groups such as Indivisible or Together We Will — sing, chant and hold signs targeting the congressman’s voting record as well as the policies of President Donald Trump.

The building owner and some tenants have complained the gatherings are disruptive and that protesters have inadvertently damaged property and impeded the flow of traffic in an out of the area.

In response, the city in February began requiring Montanari to get a permit, move the protests across the street and keep the noise down.

The congressman himself weighed in last week, sending a letter to the Vista City Council saying he had continuing concerns about the “loud gatherings” which he said have “impeded the work of neighboring businesses and prevented their right to use and enjoy their property.”

“Let me be clear: this isn’t about me or my office,” he wrote in the June 21 letter. “I can handle a little heat from some protesters.”

The building owner, Harvey Boelts, said that in addition to being disruptive, the protests have created a safety hazard, making it difficult for drivers to see around the crowd as they leave his parking lot.

“It’s not the congressman complaining. It’s me,” Boelts said last week.

He said his property has been damaged by demonstrators spilling onto the grass, where he has had a broken light fixture and busted sprinkler heads. He said someone made a mess in the building’s bathroom, leading him to to lock the doors and supply keys for tenants.

Boelts, a retired firefighter from Orange County, said he is trying to show vacant offices to potential tenants, but the protests keep him from doing so on Tuesdays. He had hoped the rallies would stop weeks ago.

“I would like the people (protesters) to accept the fact that … you have beaten the horse long enough,” he said. “Have a little respect for me as the property owner. ... Give me the respect that you expect on your property.”

Neither Issa nor Boelts could immediately be reached for comment Wednesday on the city’s decision to lift the restrictions.

Vista typically requires permits for gatherings of 50 people or more. When city officials told Montanari she would need to obtain one, she did so — but balked at some of the conditions, including that the group move to the patch of dirt across the street from the office and limit their use of amplified sound. The city had also warned that if somebody called police to complain about violations, Montanari, as the organizer, would be billed for the cost of the response.

Montanari reached out to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent Vista a letter saying the stipulations violated the First Amendment by dictating where protesters can assemble, and how they can deliver their message.

On Wednesday, ACLU attorney David Loy, who penned the letter to the city, said by issuing a new permit and lifting the conditions, Vista “has properly respected the First Amendment.”

“The protests are once a week. I think for once a week the surrounding area can tolerate a little chanting and amplified sound,” Loy said. “The city properly recognizes that. … “It’s entirely appropriate to use bullhorns and amplified sound as part of political protest.”

On Tuesday morning, more than 300 people rallied, about a third of them on the shaded sidewalk by Issa’s office, and the rest in the sun across the street from the office. A few walked through through the crowd, spraying fellow protesters with cool water. Montanari said one older woman threw up and passed out.

Huddled under an umbrella with a friend, protester Lynda Daniels said she is exercising her rights as a citizen, and plans to keep coming out. “It’s got to be noisy, or it isn’t effective,” the retiree said. “Business owners need to absorb that as part of our constitutional right.”

Protester Barbara Schiffler, a 70-year-old retired teacher and Encinitas resident, has been following the battle over the permit, and she cheered when Montanari told the crowd that the turnout was 366 people.

“The more they oppress us, the more people show up,” she yelled out.

The protesters have embraced the sole Trump supporter who comes out each week as a counter protest. That man, Sean Colgan — who rides a motorcycle with a large Trump sign on the back — said he has never seen the protesters be rude or behave badly.

“They gather, they chant, they sing, they hold silly signs — then they clean up after themselves,” Colgan, 61, said. “How rare is that?”

Issa, a nine-term congressman, won re-election to the House last year by 1,621 votes, narrowly besting Democrat Doug Applegate in the closest race in the country. Democrats have targeted his coastal 49th District as one they can pick up in 2018, and the GOP is bolstering its defense there. The district has long been red, but voters there supported Barack Obama for president in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

teri.figueroa@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @TeriFigueroaUT

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