UPDATE (3:16 PM PST): Sources have stated that there were three policemen at the meeting: one deputy, the undersheriff, and the sheriff himself (Ian Parkinson).
UPDATE (2/22 at 1:25 PM PST): Even more Sheriff’s deputies were in the back of the room during public comment at Tuesday’s SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting.
For nearly 10 years, law enforcement has been dispatched to meetings that addressed — or had public comment speakers that addressed — issues pertaining to the Los Osos wastewater project. Typically, it’s been presumed that the police were summoned to deal with the allegedly unruly Los Osos residents, most of whom maintain a reasonable, measured tone without elevating the vitriol beyond “We’re getting screwed.”
At the SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, public comment speaker Richard Margetson stated half-jokingly that the sheriff’s deputy — who was present during public comment — was there to protect the public from board members behind the dais.
“It would be funny if [the inclusion of law enforcement officials in the room during Los Osos public comment] wasn’t so warped,” Margetson told the board.
Margetson stated that a highway patrolman was present at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting on February 3, and he reported that a few residents overheard the patrolman informing staff that he was only there for “Item 13″ on the agenda. Upon closer inspection of the agenda, Item 13 was about the Los Osos wastewater project.
Frustrated with years of police presence during Los Osos discussions, Margetson quipped to the board, “You’re getting real close to a civil rights violation.”
Unfortunately, police intimidation is quite common, legal, and it doesn’t merit a civil rights violation unless the authorities physically infringe on one’s constitutionally protected rights. People don’t often report police intimidation because they fear the complaint would result in further harassment. Sometimes when a complaint is filed, the police will often side with the officer, and not with the complainant. It appears, on the surface, that it’s a lose-lose situation for Los Osos residents who have voiced their opposition to the police presence during occasions when the focus should be on having a substantive discussion without recourse.
Perhaps for the BOS the big question is, “What is the board afraid of?” Consider the following scenarios.
Speaker X speaks longer than three minutes at the podium. After the three minutes is up, the chairman of the board politely asks Speaker X to leave the podium, but speaker declines. The chairman issues a formal warning to the speaker that he or she will be physically escorted away from the podium if he or she continues to resist. Speaker X resists, and the sheriff’s deputy escorts Speaker X out of the meeting.
None of the public comment speakers from Los Osos — or discussing Los Osos — have been removed from the podium by a sheriff’s deputy since the passage of AB 2701. In recent history, retired Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin left the podium without police escort after being continuously interrupted by then-chairman Bruce Gibson, who implemented a policy that prevented speakers from talking about the Los Osos wastewater project after their quota of 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon. Curiously, County Counsel Warren Jensen stated immediately after the exchange between Gibson and Goldin, “On very rare occasions we have had a couple of people escorted out of the chambers by Sheriff’s deputies.”
Counsel did not mention that the cited “rare occasions” were attributed to Los Osos public comment speakers. Counsel has not stated an actual cause for sheriff’s deputies to be present at every meeting when escorts from the chambers have only been “rare occasions.”
Consider this scenario:
Speaker X has a lengthy reputation for being disruptive and confrontational at meetings and toward board members and/or misbehaves during the three minutes at public comment. Sheriff’s deputies need to be present in order to protect the board and the public from potential harm caused by Speaker X.
There are only a few known residents who have appeared disruptive and confrontational at meetings, but there is a remedy for those few. While the legislative body conducting a meeting legislative body “[cannot] prohibit a member of the public from criticizing the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body” (Cal. Gov. Code § 54954.3(c)) According to the Brown Act, the legislative body can remove someone who willfully disrupts a meeting. If order cannot be restored, “the members of the legislative body conducting the meeting may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session” (Gov. Code § 54957.9). In other words, the sheriff need not be present when the board has the prerogative to clear the room if disruption arises. That situation, however, has not occurred involving Los Osos speakers.
Also, resolutions can be adopted to prohibit frequent disrupters and delinquents from entering the board chambers as long as they can establish that the conduct of those being prohibited go beyond their right to freedom of speech (i.e. criminal threats as defined in Cal. Penal Code § 422). In other words, members of the public can be prohibited from physically attending meetings if the board members have sufficient reason to do so. So far, no resolutions have been made to address any resident from Los Osos.
And finally this scenario:
Speaker X, Y, and Z have been making personal attacks, threats, rants and slander. The board will not tolerate this boorish behavior, so we have required the assistance of sheriff’s deputy to maintain order in the chambers.
Sound familiar? This scenario is inspired in part by Adam Hill’s comments at the January 4 BOS meeting, his first meeting as chairman. He reinstated the police presence, which was removed by previous board chairman, Frank Mecham. In a strange twist of irony, it appears that Hill — calling for civility — has placed the sheriff’s deputies in the chambers, anticipating uncivil acts from Los Osos residents.
The problem arising from this scenario is the “chilling” infringement of the freedom of speech. A reasonable person cannot presume what Hill personally believes to be “personal attacks,” “rants,” “threats,” and “slander.” None of the ambiguous categories give rise to substantive violations of law without consideration of the facts that would show otherwise. Coupled with heated and often publicized scorn of Los Osos speakers, showing a lack of tolerance toward these aforementioned categories of constitutionally protected speech shows evidence of viewpoint discrimination, which is prohibited by the Brown Act (see the Attorney General’s analysis of viewpoint discrimination on pg. 28 of the 2003 Brown Act manual).
The consequences of viewpoint discrimination are nauseatingly circular. The presence of law enforcement officials during Los Osos-related comments could be seen as a form of entrapment in that it has previously stirred the emotions of the discriminated and it has established a cause to complain. The complaining has be deemed by local media outlets as “hostile,” and the chairman of the board justifies the existence of law enforcement in the chambers by citing “hostility” by the speakers without once identifying specific incidents of provocation or illegality by the Los Osos public.
By removing the sheriff’s deputies from the chambers — whether it’s at a BOS meeting or at a CCRWQCB meeting — everyone is treated equally and there would be no abuse of discretion by the chairman of the board. Removing the deputies would also free up sheriff resources for more valuable endeavors, such as fighting crime, which is not something the people of Los Osos have not committed. Unless there is a clear and present danger, which allows the government to suppress speech that presents a real and imminent danger, there is absolutely no reason for law enforcement officials to be present when Los Osos speakers are expressing their points of view.
The board should let the people of Los Osos speak without police intimidation and the shadow of tyranny hanging over the proceedings. Revolutions have been known to happen because governments used those two elements to maintain order, rather than by making just laws and sound policy.
– Aaron Ochs