California legislators want to change the rules for public meetings following the harassment of local officials in Los Gatos last year.
State Sen. Dave Cortese and Assemblymember Evan Low introduced a bill Wednesday to update the Brown Act. The law, created in 1953, governs conduct at public meetings of legislative bodies. Cortese says the law mostly focused on ensuring transparency, and doesn’t offer enough clarity or guidance on how to handle significant disruptions.
“Things like the ability of a local government to remove somebody from a meeting if they’re violating health standards or public health laws is a little ambiguous,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “So we’re going to try to take out some of the ambiguity of what constitutes a removal offense.”
The proposed bill establishes a procedure for warning individuals who willfully interrupt a meeting and removing them if they persist.
“It is critical for us to have transparency in the legislative process while also ensuring that we maintain the safety of the public and our public officials who continue to support our community each and every day,” Low said in a statement.
Cortese and Low decided to create the bill after hearing from Los Gatos Town Manager Laurel Prevetti following a series of protests that disrupted public meetings. Protesters interrupted meetings to speak out against the Black Lives Matter movement and one made personal attacks against then Mayor Marico Sayoc’s son.
The protests forced the Town Council to close chambers to the public for two meetings. Cortese and Low wrote a public letter to Prevetti asking for details on Los Gatos’ policy for handling harassment of public officials.
“This legislation is a direct result of the town’s work with Senator Cortese and Assemblymember Low to strengthen the Brown Act by giving more tools to elected bodies to address meeting disruptions,” Prevetti told San José Spotlight.
Sayoc said the bill will hopefully prevent significant interruptions in the future from derailing public business.
“We shouldn’t have to postpone the work we do on behalf of our constituents because of one or two disruptive incidents,” Sayoc told San José Spotlight. She added this issue deserves attention more broadly, noting disruptions are occurring at local city and school board meetings across the state and country.
A handful of other incidents in Santa Clara County have prompted local leaders to take drastic measures to deal with unruly public speakers. In December, Roland Lebrun, a frequent commenter at VTA board meetings, was sentenced to one year’s probation after pleading no contest to criminal charges for making threats at a meeting.
Monica Mallon, a transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist, said some people may oppose the bill as a restriction on free speech. But having seen abuse of elected officials in public meetings, she believes this legislation is a reasonable step.
“Some people believe they should have the freedom to be disrespectful to officials,” Mallon told San José Spotlight, adding the behavior is counterproductive. “I don’t have any issue with them stopping it if it goes too far.”
Cortese said the bill will benefit from feedback from different stakeholders over the course of 2022. He noted most state representatives have served in local government, so they have a great deal of experience with the Brown Act and handling disruptions during public meetings.
“I think that bodes well for the bill,” Cortese said. “(The) public will understand it, and to the extent we need to add or subtract language, we’ll get valuable input.”