Mayor, council must regain control over meetings
By Jeff Harris
When I joined the City Council in 2015, our public meetings were relatively benign. There was some tension over subsidizing Golden 1 Center. The city’s contribution to the Jeff Koons art piece “Piglet” caused a stir. Relatively easy stuff to work through.
Then in 2018, with the Sacramento Police shooting death of Stephon Clark and the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, things got serious. Protests led to real anger at City Hall. Obscenities became common at our meetings. Several sessions ended early because they could not be calmed.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s life was threatened at the dais. Councilmembers were called racists, murderers and executioners. At one point City Hall was vandalized. Councilmembers left the building for safety reasons.
The hot button issues became homelessness, social justice, police actions and calls for defunding public safety. A group of “progressive activists” evolved. They attended City Council meetings and regularly disrupted proceedings with belligerent, defiant behavior. By my count, they number about 50 ideologues.
The most recent disruption occurred when Councilmember Caity Maple (a presumed progressive) voted to accept a grant for the purchase of a tractor called the Rook, a front-loading machine police use to protect officers and citizens in life-threatening situations.
The activists did not anticipate Maple could analyze a staff report and make an informed decision.
They branded the Rook as a tank and Maple as a traitor.
The reward for Maple’s good and unbiased work as a representative? Death threats. And a sloppy, uninformed attack from Bee reporter Robin Epley, who wrote, “Maple didn’t only deceive her constituents, she deceived her colleagues, too.”
Maple deceived no one. She made her decision after hearing testimony and examining all sides of the issue. Her constituents and colleagues should expect nothing less.
Councilmember Katie Valenzuela insinuated Maple and other new members did not think critically about their vote for the Rook. Vice Mayor Eric Guerra adjourned the next meeting because people revisited the issue, hurled expletives and approached the dais without permission.
Is protected speech such as profanity allowable in a public forum like a council meeting? The city attorney has opined it is. Disrupting proceedings is not. The catch is, profanity escalates tempers, which often leads to disruption.
Council rules and procedures state no person shall engage in conduct that disturbs the orderly conduct of meetings.
Rules give the presiding officer (usually the mayor) the ability to warn people about their conduct or have them removed by the sergeant at arms.
There have been many warnings, but few removals by Steinberg. Over time, his permissive approach has encouraged activists to destroy decorum at City Hall.
Granted, running a contentious meeting requires quick judgment. You can allow some small outbursts and let tempers cool and diffuse the moment. But over the last five years, these behaviors have increased to the point where it has become sporting for activists to shut down meetings.
It happens because they are allowed to get away with it.
City Council meetings must be a place where anyone can express views, however radical, without being intimidated or bullied by others who don’t share their views.
Many of my neighbors have said they won’t participate in City Council meetings due to the vitriol and intimidation. On Zoom, some people use pseudonyms to avoid backlash or verbal abuse.
The ability to “agree to disagree” no longer exists at City Council meetings.
It won’t be easy to change direction now that the die has been cast, but it is necessary. Similar mayhem has reached County Board of Supervisors meetings, but Chair Rich Desmond is determined to change the culture and regain control of the sessions.
It will take political resolve and zero tolerance. Our mayor needs to use tools at his disposal and immediately eject people who disrupt council proceedings to regain control of the chambers and require a reasonable tone at meetings. It just takes leadership.
Jeff Harris represented District 3 on the City Council from 2014 to 2022. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.