The county Board of Supervisors will consider a policy change Wednesday intended to curtail hate speech and inappropriate conduct during county meetings, following a contentious session last week in which some members of the public used racist and threatening language.
The turning point, following months of vitriolic public meetings, was one 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.
Board Chairman Nathan 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 Tuesday. “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 the board will consider Wednesday will — if passed — allow for the adoption of a code of civil discourse developed by the National Conflict Resolution Center, take more stringent positions against harassment and abuse, give the board more discretion on the amount of time allotted to public speakers and enact other procedural changes intended to allow public participation.
“Hate speech and racism have no place in our public institutions,” Vargas said. “Our democracy is stronger when divergent voices and viewpoints are part of our discourse. I have fought for many years so that our community has a voice in our county.”
“However, public comment at our meetings has become more vile and aggressive and I will not be a bystander to anti-Black, racist, hate speech,” she said. “Our employees need to feel safe to do their jobs free of harassment. I am committed to fighting for equity and institutional change and it is our responsibility to bring back decency, kindness and respect to civil discourse.”
Policies under consideration Wednesday include:
- 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
- Codifying continued allowance of remote participation by the public to participate in board meetings
The policies, if supported by a three-vote majority of the board on Wednesday, will go into effect immediately, starting at the Nov. 16 board meeting.
City News Service contributed to this article.