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Bakersfield establishes 'rules of decorum' following contentious council meeting

City Council speaker (copy)

In this file photo, a speaker is confronted by Bakersfield Police Department officers while attempting to speak about the BPD budget during a hearing on water rates as part of a Bakersfield City Council meeting.

The city of Bakersfield has established new rules of decorum for attendees of City Council meetings that strengthen its authority to remove individuals officials deem disruptive to proceedings.

The new rules bar yelling, chanting, banging or throwing objects, threatening remarks, “unduly repetitious comments,” and even comments that are outside the jurisdiction of the council, among other restrictions.

Failure to follow the new policy could result in an individual being removed from a council meeting and charged with a misdemeanor, which carries with it the potential for a six-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

The council quietly approved the rules during a vote on a range of items deemed to be routine on Wednesday. The rules were already in place, albeit unofficially. City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said the new policy would give the city more authority to maintain order during public meetings.

“I think it’s unfortunate, but we needed to bring ourselves up to that level where we have rules of decorum that are in writing,” she said, noting all of the state’s 10 largest cities except Bakersfield had already established such rules. “Everyone in the public knows what’s expected of them when they come to council meetings. It’s educating the public, informing the public, and getting where we need to be as the ninth largest city.”

The change comes after a June meeting in which Mayor Karen Goh ordered the council chambers cleared following members of the public chanting in support of an individual giving a public comment.

Some speakers refused to leave, and for about 15 minutes a brief standoff ensued. It was not until being threatened with arrest for trespassing that the speakers eventually left.

The meeting had been contentious from the beginning. The council was slated to approve the fiscal year 2021-22 budget, which included a $13.4 million increase to the Bakersfield Police Department, and many community advocates turned up in opposition.

The advocates harshly criticized the council and city officials, many using profanity to do so. Most were associated with People’s Budget Bakersfield, a group pushing for an alternative city budget that defunds BPD in favor of community support programs.

The council only granted 15 minutes of public speaking time to individuals against the BPD budget, a point of contention for the speakers.

“They tamp down on the people who are speaking truth rather than addressing, in an honest and open and transparent way, any of the concerns,” said Josth Stenner, a member of People’s Budget Bakersfield. “It’s very clear the City Council will only listen to you if you agree with them on the majority of things.”

He spoke out against the new rules on Friday, saying they would create more barriers for people trying to be heard by the council.

Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a Fresno-based nonprofit focusing on inequality, criticized the city’s decision after the vote.

“The reason why folks speak out in ways that are not your traditional ways of speaking is because communities have been neglected for so long, and really have not been invited to the table to even speak about these things,” said Leadership Counsel Policy Advocate Emma De La Rosa. “It’s just been many years of neglect, and community members are just trying to make their voices heard.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.