County leaders change public comment policy to curb hate speech

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SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has voted 3-1 in favor of a policy change intended to curtail hate speech and inappropriate conduct during county meetings.

The board’s action follows a contentious session last week in which some members of the public used racist and threatening language.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher and Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Nora Vargas voted in favor of the change, while Supervisor Joel Anderson opposed it. Supervisor Jim Desmond was on a pre-planned trip and absent from the meeting.

The change added a series of policies, including:

  • Reading a statement on the county’s policy regarding discrimination and harassment into the record during the meeting;
  • Prohibiting disruptive conduct, including but not limited to loud or threatening language, whistling, clapping, stamping of feet, speaking over or interrupting the recognized speaker;
  • Creating parameters for group presentations allowing them only to be given for land use or adjudicatory matters as well as a maximum time period of four minutes for individual members of each group within the 10-minute maximum;
  • Limiting public comment to one minute per person if there are more than 10 individuals wishing to comment, under the Brown Act;
  • Adopting a consent calendar for routine or administrative items for which debate is not anticipated;
  • Asking members of the public to bring their own technology to provide presentations; and
  • Codifying continued allowance of remote participation by the public to participate in board meetings.

The policies, which needed a three-vote majority, will go into effect immediately, with the next board meeting set for Nov. 16.

Following months of vitriolic public meetings, the policy change was prompted last week by a man who said he wanted several of the supervisors dead — ostensibly in response to the county’s continuing efforts combating COVID-19 — and directed a racial slur at county Public Health Director Dr. Wilma Wooten, who is Black.

The remark prompted an angry response from Supervisor Nora Vargas, who peppered her retort with an expletive.

In a statement after Wednesday’s special meeting, which was held via teleconference, Fletcher said the board “took action to reform our rules and procedures to ensure we can have a safe and healthy environment to conduct the people’s business while allowing full public participation.”

“San Diegans want to see progress on the challenges our region faces — affordable housing, homelessness, and ensuring safe and healthy communities,” Fletcher added. “It is now time for us to get back to work on the real issues our region faces.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Fletcher said the policy could be modified if needed. Vargas, who proposed the policy change with Fletcher — said it was unfortunate they had to meet “under these circumstances,” but hoped “this will result in a more welcoming environment at the meetings.”

“I’ve been very concerned about what I’ve seen,” said Vargas, who added that when she was an advocate addressing the board, she was never disruptive or racist.

“We’re trying to make sure that we allow for everyone to have access and opportunity to speak,” Vargas said.

“I absolutely welcome differences of opinion and perspective,” Vargas said, “but I really want us to figure out a way to bring back decency, kindness and respect at our public meetings.”

Lawson-Remer described the vote as “one step forward today, because frankly we have an emergency,” but supervisors must be open to stakeholder feedback and changing the policy if needed.

Lawson-Remer added she was very hopeful that feedback “creates a safe space with a real public forum that doesn’t empower bullies and hate, because inadvertently that’s what we’ve done.”

When his name was called to vote, Anderson answered, “Sadly, no.” He said he strongly condemned the hateful remarks made last week, but that residents, especially rural communities, need more time to review agenda items.

Anderson added that many of those communities don’t have decent WiFi access, making it difficult for them to send emails to the board about an issue or watch a meeting online.

“For them to drive an hour, to get one minute, concerns me greatly,” Anderson said. “We’re allowing the hecklers’ voice to force our hand to shut down legitimate input.”

Supervisors on Wednesday also heard from nearly 40 members of the public who called in.

Those in favor of the policy overhaul cited the need to have a civil forum where all residents felt comfortable speaking their mind, while opponents said any changes threatened the First Amendment.

Fletcher said following last week’s meeting that while dissent is a healthy part of a functioning democracy, it has been sad to watch vaccine mandate opponents launch personal attacks on board members and county officials simply because they don’t agree with their policies.

“Hate speech and creating a hostile work environment for county staff will not be tolerated,” he said. “The changes to our Board of Supervisors Rules and Procedures we have proposed are meant to curb the vulgar, racist and profane behavior that has occurred recently during the public comment portion of our meetings.

“The actions of some are preventing good people who truly want to participate in their government from showing up to give their testimony and that must change,” Fletcher said.

The policy adopted by the board allows for the adoption of a code of civil discourse developed by the National Conflict Resolution Center, takes more stringent positions against harassment and abuse, gives the board more discretion on the amount of time allotted to public speakers and enacts other procedural changes intended to allow public participation.

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