People who wish to speak at San Diego County Board of Supervisors meetings will face new rules after the board decided in a divisional vote on Wednesday to update commenting procedures public to curb threatening or racist speech.
The board approved the 3-1 measure at a special virtual meeting, with supervisor Jim Desmond absent on vacation and supervisor Joel Anderson voting against the measure, expressing concern over how the rules would affect rural voters.
The board made the changes after a speaker at last week’s board meeting used racial slurs to attack the region’s top public health official, Dr Wilma Wooten , after doing a routine update on COVID-19. In recent months, other speakers have used threatening or abusive language to express criticism of county supervisors and policies, especially the pandemic response.
â€œThere is a growing trend in times of public comment where people make vulgar, profane, racist and hostile comments,â€ President Nathan Fletcher said. â€œWe welcome dissent to San Diego County. We welcome disagreements. We welcome people who come to strengthen our democracy by expressing opposing views. But we have an obligation to protect the county employees who are part of our system here and not allow a hostile work environment to develop. “
Supervisors Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer said the new rules aim to create a respectful environment for the public to express dissenting opinions.
â€œI come from the world of being an organizer and an advocate,â€ Vargas said. â€œI’ve been to the board so many times, and never have I headed in this direction where it was disruptive or racist. What we are doing today is trying to make sure that we allow everyone to have access and to have their point of view expressed.
Some of the rule changes would reduce people’s speaking time. Anderson said he was concerned this would put rural residents who have to travel long distances to attend supervisor meetings and who may not have internet access to attend a board meeting online.
He said restricting public comment due to some disruptive speakers would unfairly limit opportunities for other San Diego residents to give their opinion.
“What worries me is that we are allowing the heckler’s voice to force our hand to close legitimate entrances,” Anderson said.
Anderson proposed an amendment that would require county board letters to be printed 30 days before a vote to allow residents time to comment. After other members rejected the idea, he said he would not support the motion to change the public consultation rules.
The new rules prohibit “expressing loud or threatening language”, whistling, applauding, stamping your foot, speaking or interrupting the recognized speaker if these actions disrupt “the smooth running of any meeting”.
Members of the public often clap, clap, or boo to support or oppose a speaker, and Fletcher frequently warned people of these interruptions. He said the restrictions would apply to members of the public, not those on the podium.
The revised public speaking protocol also limits group presentations, where three or more people talk about a topic for 10 minutes in total.
Such presentations would only be permitted for land use decisions and appeals and would not be permitted on other matters except with the consent of the chair of the board. Speaking time for each member of the group would be limited to four minutes out of a total of 10 minutes.
The rules also limit entries on the board’s consent calendar, allowing supervisors to send out many routine items with a single vote. Previously, members of the public could request to remove any item from the consent list to allow full discussion. Now, under the changes, only a supervisor or county administrative officer can request a deletion.
The public can still comment on the items on the consent calendar, but they will only have two minutes to discuss the entire list, instead of being able to comment for two minutes on each item. This change is intended to reduce off topic comments.
Another change allows for a shorter time frame for items that many speakers have signed up to comment on. Under the old rules, each speaker had two minutes to make their point, but the new rules allowed the chairman of the board to cut that allowance in half, to one minute per person, if there are more than 10 people. wishing to comment on a point. .
Fletcher said the standard time will remain at two minutes.
The rules also allow the chairman of the board to address a public speaker if the person deviates in â€œloud, threatening, profane or abusive languageâ€ or gets off topic.
The board held the special meeting online, not in person, after giving one day’s notice. The public could watch the meeting and make phone calls in their comments.
Brigette Browning, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, called the meeting to say the rules are needed to protect county workers and ensure they can do their jobs free from harassment and abuse.
â€œWe fight every day to ensure that our workers are treated with dignity, respect and safety and that no one should come to work every day and face this kind of hatred,â€ she said. â€œHate speech is not conducive to good government. “
Riverside County Supervisor Victor Manuel Perez said the effort is a model for other government agencies balancing the right to free speech with the need for public decorum.
â€œUnfortunately, some people are making overtly racist, misogynistic, homophobic and threatening comments during these public hearings,â€ Perez said. “As county supervisors, we must protect freedom of speech, without compromising dialogue and respectful order.”
Civil rights activist Shane Harris said he believed the racist comments crossed a more dangerous line than other threats or slurs, and the county should view Wednesday’s changes as a starting point for reigning in abusive language .
â€œI urge you to endorse these protections and make them even stronger,â€ Harris said.
Other speakers objected, saying the new rules go too far and punish the majority of public speakers for the actions of a few.
For example, a number of people said that the potential limit of one minute of speaking time would not leave enough time to express opinions on complicated matters. This deadline, if implemented, could infringe San Diegans’ rights to speak directly to supervisors on important matters, said Kathy Kassel, president and CEO of the Lakeside Chamber of Commerce.
â€œDon’t let a small handful of opponents ruin democracy for the rest of us,â€ Kassel said.
Some people objected to the rule prohibiting members of the public from removing items from the consent schedule for separate review. While many elements of consent are simple administrative matters, others could have a significant impact on some voters, they argued.
“I ask you to reconsider the proposal to ban the public from withdrawing elements of consent,” said Amy Reichert, co-founder of the organization ReOpen San Diego, which protested the COVID-19 policy. â€œSometimes the consecutive elements are in the consent. “
One speaker said the rule allowing the chairman of the board to revoke speaking time would turn meetings into a modern version of “The Gong Show,” referring to the 1970s TV program in which performers were cut off by a loud gong.
The rules take effect immediately, starting next week’s board meetings, Tuesday and Wednesday.