A coalition of local social justice organizations is calling on the Bakersfield City Council to rescind “rules of decorum” newly established to govern conduct during public comments.
In a letter sent to city officials, the groups said the new rules were so broad they violated the Constitution, and would act to discriminate against certain viewpoints.
“These rules of decorum, it’s not making the space any more comfortable, or any more welcoming, for folks to have a say and be a part of the decision-making process,” said Emma De La Rosa, a policy advocate for Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, one of the groups involved in the letter. “Instead of adding more barriers, the city should be thinking about how they can improve public participation.”
The city declined to comment on the letter.
The new rules bar a number of actions the council deems to be disruptive. While shouting, profanity and threats were prohibited, the policy also banned “unduly repetitious remarks” and comments outside the jurisdiction of the legislative body.
The letter says these rules threaten the bedrock principles of free speech by significantly limiting conduct at council meetings. Furthermore, the groups questioned the timing of the rules, saying their establishment shortly after a meeting in which the council was heavily criticized raised concern.
At a June meeting on the fiscal year 2021-22 budget, dozens of activists attended to speak out against the city’s increase in funding to the Bakersfield Police Department. Initially, speakers were allowed up to three minutes to make their comments, and many of the first speakers supported the BPD budget.
But the meeting became combative when a number of people sharply criticized the council over its support of BPD. Some members of the audience chanted and shouted during comments advocating against increased funding to BPD. After warning the audience, Mayor Karen Goh ordered the chambers cleared when some members of the audience shouted against City Attorney Ginny Gennaro’s suggestion that public comments be closed because the council had already allowed 15 minutes on the topic.
The council generally allows 15 minutes per topic, and at a later point in the meeting, Goh said two 15-minute segments — one in favor of the budget and one on miscellaneous topics — had already taken place.
After a short recess, speakers were allowed to make a comment one at a time, but the city placed an eight minute and 44 second time limit on the remaining 43 speakers, claiming part of the 15-minute time limit on individuals against the budget had already elapsed.
Less than a month later, the council approved the rules of decorum, which allow a misdemeanor punishable with a six-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine to be charged against people who break it.
“It really does seem like it’s a way to silence people,” said De La Rosa. “Had they come up at a random point, when there wasn’t a budget hearing like the one that we had, then maybe we wouldn’t question it.”
The groups involved in the letter include the Leadership Council, in addition to Sunrise Kern, People’s Budget Bakersfield, inthefield661 and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California.
The groups gave the city until Friday to respond.