Animal advocacy group alleges LB mayor hid comments on Facebook

Mayor’s chief of staff says office does not hide social-media comments.

A group of self-identified animal advocates submitted a citizen-complaint letter to the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury last week alleging that Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia hid critical comments on his public-figure and official Facebook pages.

According to the 146-page letter, the group is asking the civil grand jury to investigate if Garcia “attempted to place unconstitutional restrictions on members of the public as to their First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

The document claims that 56 comments were hidden from public view, and it contains various screenshots of the alleged hidden messages. The letter also alleges that the blocked comments suppressed criticism of Garcia before the City’s primary elections for mayor and city council on April 10.

In an email to the Signal Tribune Sept. 26, Mark Taylor, Garcia’s chief of staff, wrote that “the mayor’s office does not delete comments or block users.”

He added that an “internal policy” for the City is in a draft form and will be completed in the near future.

“The finalized internal policy for City departments will address ‘hiding’ comments, which does not delete comments but limits views,” the statement reads. “The mayor’s office is not hiding comments and is looking forward to the development of this policy.”

The comments in question concern two images posted on the mayor’s official and public-figure Facebook pages on April 4.

Courtesy Kristie Mamelli
A group of self-identified animal advocates submitted a citizen-complaint letter to the Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury last week alleging that Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia hid critical comments on his public-figure and official Facebook pages. The 146-page document claims that 56 comments were hidden from public view, and it contains various screenshots of the alleged hidden messages, as shown above. According to the document, the first [left] screenshot displays what Facebook users would see if they were not “friends” with the residents who wrote the alleged hidden comments. The second screenshot [right] shows what was allegedly hidden.

The images are bar-graph charts detailing the number of live impounds and animal-euthanasia cases citywide from 2005 to 2017. Both of the posts display information from Long Beach Animal Care Services.
On the mayor’s official Facebook page, the post reads, “In 2013, the number of animals euthanized at our animal shelter was more than 4,000. Last year, there were 1,065.”

The mayor’s office also states in the post that the decrease in euthanasia cases is only the beginning and that more work needs to be done.

“As part of our requested audit, we are launching a new visioning process for the shelter and are putting together a task force to help create this vision,” the statement reads.

In the comment section of the post, some residents congratulated the decreases in animal deaths per the statistics shown. Others criticized the City’s handling of the animal shelters, stating concerns they had in the way in which the shelters were administered.

The letter claims that comments criticizing the City’s methods were hidden from public view.
Kristie Mamelli, a No Kill Long Beach advocacy group supporter, is one of the four individuals who signed the letter sent to the civil grand jury. Others included Tracy Smith, Leslie Shapiro and Jeanne Morales.

During a phone interview with the Signal Tribune on Sept. 25, Mamelli said that the aforementioned comments in question have since then been unhidden and users who are not “Facebook friends” with those who wrote the alleged comments can now view them in the posts from April.

She added that a similar letter concerning the alleged hidden social-media comments was sent to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (DA) in August.

The DA has since stated that they “couldn’t make a determination one way or the other” about the claims made in the initial letter, according to Mamelli.

She also claimed that the posts were made unhidden once news spread that a letter requesting an investigation into the matter was sent to the DA.

Nathan Winograd, No Kill Law and Advocacy Center national director, drafted a similar complaint letter to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Public Integrity Division on Aug. 6.

In a phone interview with the Signal Tribune Sept. 27, he said that public integrity division officials took a “very narrow” reading of the complaint letter.

“According to the DA, they will only investigate matters in which a criminal statute is violated that could lead to jail time,” Winograd said. “The federal law that we believe the mayor broke– 42 U.S. Code Section 1983– only provides for civil remedies.”

Winograd added that the DA officials told them that they were not taking a stance on the matter and recommended the animal advocates pursue the claim civically.

He suggested that Long Beach residents should make the claim with the civil grand jury.

Winograd added that he gave permission for concerned Long Beach residents to use the draft of the letter that was sent to the DA, but he was not involved in the drafting process.

In Taylor’s email Wednesday, he wrote that the City abides by its social-media terms of service (TOS) guidelines found at the bottom of its website.

The social-media TOS states that the City reserves the right to remove, without notice, any comments or submissions that it deems to be inappropriate or offensive.

The guidelines state comments that contain defamatory statements, slander, spam, advertisements, profanity and other criteria may fall under the TOS.

During Tuesday’s phone interview with the Signal Tribune, Mamelli said that the alleged hidden comments remained on the topic of the original Facebook post.

“[The comments] were on topic and not negative toward him,” she said. “It just made him look bad.”
Mamelli told the Signal Tribune that the civil grand jury had not yet provided a follow up to the investigation-request letter by Tuesday.

Mary Hearn, Los Angeles Superior Court public information officer, wrote in an email to the Signal Tribune Tuesday that the work of the civil grand jury is confidential.

“The court cannot comment on any materials that may have been sent to the civil grand jury, nor can we comment on what they may be investigating,” Hearn said.

Winograd said the civil grand jury may choose not to take action on the letter.

“If the grand jury decides it does not want to investigate, then the next step is to retain an attorney and file a lawsuit for declaratory injunctive relief,” Winograd said.