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Circus comes to county board meetings

By Howard Schmidt
December 2022

Their testimony is performance art, complete with profanities and songs that rhyme. They fill the Board of Supervisors chambers at 700 H St. with f-bombs and wild accusations, somehow believing the best way to win support from elected officials is to insult them.

When the board meets, activists often testify about Sacramento County’s purported failures involving homelessness, mental health and law enforcement.

Among the voices is Decarcerate Sacramento, a group determined to curb jail expansion, decrease jail population and shift funds from law enforcement into “community-based systems of care.”

To hear from ordinary, non-activist residents, board members often have to schedule meetings in suburban locations miles from Downtown.

Few suburban citizens—people from unincorporated neighborhoods who have no local government other than the county supervisors—attend H Street sessions.

Supervisor Rich Desmond recently held a meeting in Carmichael. The topic was public safety. Desmond had no problem filling the room, packed with more than 300 people.

The meeting was scheduled weeks in advance, but the turnout was prompted by the recent murder of a local resident. A homeless man was in custody.

The contrast is stark between the Carmichael meeting and routine board sessions on H Street.

Carmichael attendees had grievances, but they exercised restraint. Downtown activists often turn a board session into a pep rally with chanting and programmed applause.

At H Street, activists follow their own agenda and arrive in force. Few bother to moderate anger and frustration. They testify on favorite topics even when the board deals with other matters. They recently assailed supervisors for a “fascist-like Nazi decision on homelessness.”

Theatrics take a toll. Desmond, the newest board member, was elected in 2020. So far, he’s apparently not impressed with the profanity and antics.

At the Carmichael meeting, Desmond told constituents the board “doesn’t hear enough from community members,” citing how activists often dominate.

Since the pandemic, activists learned they don’t have to show up to air their views.

Social distance requirements created the ability to testify by phone. The board agenda explains how to call in.

Even if there’s no pertinent issue on the agenda, activists know they can talk uninterrupted during time allotted for matters not on the agenda.

Expect more inflammatory rhetoric Dec. 7 when the board is scheduled to hear a report on upgrades for the jail. Activists dislike the Sheriff’s Department and want it curtailed.

In some ways, the Sheriff’s Department is already being curtailed, though the reasons are complex. There are more than 100 vacant deputy positions. Unfilled jobs result in inadequate patrol strength for unincorporated suburban neighborhoods.

Sgt. Nathan Seger says vacancies sometimes leave patrols “at below or at minimum level,” depending on the number of deputies available. The reasons for shortages vary and include sick leave, vacations, retirements and deputies quitting.

Seger, president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, has been a cop for 20 years. He says negative media portrayals of law enforcement haven’t helped retention or recruitment.

“We need good people to stay,” he says, but acknowledges many leave due to the “new reality” of negativity for people who want to build a law enforcement career.

On the other hand, Seger says residents often express appreciation to the men and women wearing the uniform. “People are just coming up and saying ‘thank you,’” he says.

Desmond wants suburbanites to make their voices heard on H Street. Beyond the theatrics, public testimony can make a difference.

Howard Schmidt worked on federal, state and local levels of government, including 16 years for Sacramento County. He can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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