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[whitespace] Robert Norse, Becky Johnson, Bernard Klitzner
Three's a Crowd: Bathrobespierre Robert Norse holds court in Santa Cruz together with fellow Klatchers Becky Johnson and Bernard Klitzner.

Nüz

Fitz to Be Tied

Homeless activist Robert Norse has a more extensive bathrobe collection than anyone Nüz knows. City receptionist Anna Brooks' accusations that homeless activists Norse, Becky Johnson and Bernard Klitzner harassed her in the small reception area at Santa Cruz City Hall during their "Koffee Klatch and Tag-Team Teach-In" last December gave Norse the opportunity to model said bath-wear collection in court last week.

Was it Norse's unique fashion sense that caused Brooks to accuse him of "destroying the ambience of the office" and to file a temporary restraining order against the trio six months ago? Or were the Klatchers' actually aiming to embarrass Santa Cruz Mayor Tim Fitzmaurice--a Green Party member lately dubbed the "astroturf" mayor due to his failure to hew to the Green Party's homeless policy.

Either way, Judge Samuel Stevens, who signed the original restraining order on Dec. 26, overthrew it on June 1, on the grounds that the Klatchers' "harassment" had been directed at the city in general--and the mayor in particular--but not at Brooks.

Stevens, who could be seen picking his teeth and massaging his face with a small notepad during the trial, also ruled that staging a teach-in at the mayor's office is not constitutionally protected behavior--and that it's not even appropriate to physically approach councilmembers, especially in this modern age of telephones and email.

"It might sound OK in Santa Cruz, but it's scary," Stevens opined, thus opening up the perhaps appealing (to politicians anyway) notion of a constitutient-free zone around elected officials.

In her testimony, Brooks detailed what for her amounted to harassment: persistent questioning about city procedure; aggressive accosting of visitors by thrusting leaflets toward them; stealing pens; giving her dirty looks; speaking loudly (even a Norse "stage whisper" was a booming distraction, Brooks testified); pacing; giving interviews to the press; tape recording what was going on in the office; broadcasting the tapes on Free Radio Santa Cruz (which Brooks said she'd never listened to because she doesn't "listen to illegal radio stations"); and asking people who came into the office if they slept well the night before.

And then there were the 77 handwritten messages that Brooks was asked to photocopy and give to the mayor and councilmembers, which, as the defendant's lawyer, David Beauvais, calculated, "averages out to four messages a day" over the 17-day period in question.

"It sounds like little things, but repeatedly it became highly frustrating and distracting," stated Brooks, who said she suffered headaches, muscle tension and three broken teeth from stress-related jaw clenching. Brooks also sought out professional counseling during the teach-in. When asked if she ever asked the Klatchers to lower their voices, Brooks said it wouldn't have been within her "purview" to do so.

"He [Norse] frightens me," testified Brooks, adding that Norse is "mercurial, he goes from being very gracious, almost flirtatious, to churlish." Brooks said she found Johnson "emotionally frightening."

Susan Jansen, administrative assistant for the city's Redevelopment Agency, testified that she stopped going into the office altogether during the teach-in. "It's hard to go into the office of the highest elected official in the city and see a full-grown man in his bathrobe and slippers and not be intimidated. You don't even know what's under that bathrobe," said Jansen, adding that she didn't want to know.

Taking the witness stand, Mayor Fitzmaurice said that during the teach-in he had repeatedly told the activists to direct their attentions toward him rather than "the women in the office" and admitted that he had "a difference of opinion" with Norse concerning the so-called sleeping ban. The mayor pointed out that there are several other ways for the public to reach him besides sitting in his office's cramped reception area, including dialing his home phone number, which he said Norse and Johnson had done in the past.

Was Fitz the evil mastermind behind Brooks' restraining order, as the defendants claimed? "I told [Brooks] I'd support any action she might want to take," Fitzmaurice said, but he insisted that it was never his idea to file the restraining order.

Meanwhile, Johnson testified that "we were conducting ourselves in a way that was consistent with the business of that office," adding that because they were present in the office, the Klatchers were able to meet with councilmembers Christopher Krohn, Emily Reilly and Scott Kennedy.

In his customary fashion, Norse tape- recorded the entire proceedings. "The tag-team effort has been cut off at the neck. People are afraid to go back," he said under oath. "I really believe that being in those offices is important for people lobbying city council." He also managed to mention that he found Brooks "arch and paranoid."

At some point during Norse's lengthy testimony, Judge Stevens interrupted Norse to say, "I believe if someone asked you the time of day it would take you four minutes to answer them."

Closing statements from City Attorney John Barisone, representing Brooks, were succinct. "This is about using a low-level government employee as a battering ram," Barisone said, "not about the First Amendment."

During his closing address, Beauvais took his time. "We have people dying in the streets," he began. "They must be able to talk to their mayor. ... Part of the petition process is being present. ... They were not there to take over the office but to remind them of the issues. ... a receptionist with a less-fragile personality could have taken it in stride."

In the end, Judge Stevens cleared the Klatchers of harassment charges. He also ruled that the reception area isn't a public forum--a decision that should please decorum-loving mayor Fitzmaurice, who says he now has a better idea "of what is possible in the reception area."

Or not.

Enter City Hall these days, and you'll find a list of rules that would do Miss Manners proud, although they might make Tom Paine wince.

"To maintain the dignity and civility of this office," begins the list in bold type, "visitors are requested to conduct their business with respect for those who work here and for visitors to this office." Some examples of Fitz's Forbidden Fruits of Democracy include "loitering or holding meetings in this small space, aggressive or prolonged argument or conversation," "loud, coarse or disruptive conversation" and "posting signs or distributing leaflets." You got a problem with that? Try email.

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From the June 6-13, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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