In a surprise decision, the Bakersfield City Council briefly reconsidered an ordinance restricting abortion that a city committee tabled in May, before voting 5-2 Wednesday to drop the entire issue until at least four members bring it back.
Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan and Ward 7 Councilman Russell Johnson voted against ending the council's 15-month debate on the matter, which attracted 22 speakers Wednesday, and a TV crew from Los Angeles last month.
On the agenda was consideration of a relatively mild resolution approved last month by a city committee comprising three council members.
It commended "organizations that advocate for and educate the public about the alternatives to abortions ... ," and City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said in an earlier interview that there would be no need for its enforcement.
Out of the picture -- or so it seemed -- was the Human Life ordinance, restricting abortion in Bakersfield.
Tabled by the council's Legislative and Litigation Committee in May, the ordinance would have allowed anyone "aggrieved" by an abortion to file a civil lawsuit and potentially recover damages including $10,000 per violation from the "... person, business, organization or government agency" providing the abortion.
Gennaro warned Wednesday, as she has repeatedly, that the ordinance's latest draft would still expose the city to hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation.
Sullivan, a member of the Legislative and Litigation Committee, had said she would continue to oppose the resolution -- and so Sullivan moved to have the council give first reading to the ordinance.
"It's really my turn to vote my conscience, to vote the way I feel on this issue, and I know I represent many thousands of people in the city of Bakersfield who feel the same way," Sullivan said.
Her motion sparked two others.
Johnson moved to table the ordinance and adopt the resolution, followed by a motion from Ward 1 Councilman Willie Rivera to table the ordinance and "drop or not approve the resolution" until a majority of the council approved reconsidering it.
"To be honest, I'd like there to be zero abortions every year," Rivera said, adding, "I do not believe that this is the proper forum" in which to decide the matter.
"It is a good debate and it has brought a lot of points to the forefront, but it hasn't really resolved anything," said Vice Mayor Ken Weir, amending Rivera's motion to clarify that a "majority" means at least four council members.
The council then voted, and its decision shocked approximately 20 residents who stayed to hear the decision -- the remnants of a standing-room-only crowd present when the meeting began at 5:15, more than three hours earlier.
"It was like watching a bad magic show, to be honest," said Tim Palmquist, administrator of LifeSavers Ministries, and an author of the ordinance. "The parliamentary procedures tonight are, like, from another planet. It was a slap in the face."
Abortion rights activists were elated as they left.
"Golly, we did it," said resident Jane Prewitt. "That means it's dead for a while. I'm going to go home and celebrate."