Santa Clara County could issue $10,000 fine for ‘interference’ in public meetings
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian is pictured in this file photo.

If you try to stop someone from speaking at the county’s Board of Supervisors meeting, you might be fined $10,000.

Santa Clara County supervisors are considering a plan to levy a $10,000 fine against anyone who might threaten, intimidate or use violence to prevent someone from participating in a public decision-making process. The ordinance would also prevent threats of economic harm and harm to someone’s reputation.

It’s unclear if interference or intimidation has been a problem in recent years — or why supervisors are drafting the measure now. Supervisor Cindy Chavez said it’s just part of the county’s push for transparency. Supervisors advanced the plan last week and will cast a final vote on it next week.

“(Ten thousand dollars) is a number that we chose as being a reasonable round number that would be a deterrent, but not too extreme,” said County Counsel James Williams. “Given this is the likely kind of situation where you’re bringing forward one or a only a couple violations.”

The rule would allow Williams to bring legal action against violators, but also allows residents to file a civil suit if they believe their rights were infringed upon.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who abstained from the vote, shared concerns the policy will be abused.

“My concern is abuse (of the rule) by someone for vengeance suits to proliferate,” Ellenberg said. She also worried fines could pile up for people who cannot afford them.

But that wasn’t enough to dissuade her colleagues.

“We have had many concerns about and reports of retaliation for people making their voices heard,” Chavez said. “I think one of the reasons I was so supportive of this, especially in this time, (is because) having people not risk a job or a position because they have a strong opinion about something that’s happening in the public realm is really critical.”

Chavez did not provide any examples of harassment or retaliation residents have experienced.

Supervisor Joe Simitian requested the ordinance along with Chavez in April 2020.

“I am not as concerned (about vengeance suits),” Simitian said. “If someone is being abused, we need to give them some venue which is for better or worse our court system.”

Williams said it’s possible that people might abuse the system by filing multiple complaints against one person or group, but the burden of proof is still on the litigant.

“The right to participate in the public process is a constitutionally protected right, but rights without remedies are worse than meaningless: They breed cynicism,” said Simitian. “In this case, we’ve simply said we want to protect people’s right to participate whatever their point of view, without that right being threatened by whomever, however.”

Supervisors will have a final vote on the rule at their next meeting on Feb. 9.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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