Two boards of South County agencies have recently approved new rules that give their board chairs the ability to clear the room if they deem that a meeting becomes disruptive.
The updated bylaws approved by the Oceano Community Services District board and the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District board are not unusual; many of the cities and special districts in the county have some sort of policy or procedure in place dealing with meeting decorum.
The board overseeing the wastewater treatment plant serving Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano made its updates during an annual review of the district’s bylaws, district Administrator John Wallace said.
District Legal Counsel Michael Seitz added that the change was prompted by meetings in late 2010 and early this year in which “speakers were from our point of view disrupting meetings when public comment was closed and not heeding direction from the board chair.”
In Oceano’s case, the timing of the addition to the district’s bylaws was not related to a specific incident or issue, but intended to make sure the meetings run smoothly, board member Carole Henson said.
“We do want public comment, but we don’t feel it’s constructive to have people hooting and hollering and booing,” Henson said. “It’s not a ball game. It’s a meeting.”
Public officials are not strangers to contentious meetings and heated debates, though local boards and councils can choose different ways to set the tone.
A review of policies and procedures in most of the cities and several of the special districts in San Luis Obispo County shows that all have some sort of policy. In Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach, a speaker who is disrupting a meeting with remarks deemed by the presiding officer to be slanderous or profane may be barred.
In Arroyo Grande, Atascadero and Pismo Beach, an individual causing a disturbance is to be warned, and if he or she does not cease the activity, could be arrested on a misdemeanor charge.
In Grover Beach, the mayor can order the room cleared and continue in session, with media allowed to remain.
County supervisors are advised that if a meeting gets unmanageable, the board may take a break to allow things to settle down, Assistant County Counsel Rita Neal said in an email. She did not recall that happening recently.
In 2007, a Los Osos man trying to speak to supervisors had his microphone cut off in midsentence and was escorted out of the room for allegedly causing a disturbance. The board chair said the man was speaking at the wrong time.
It is also not uncommon for a sheriff’s deputy to be present during a board meeting, Neal said. During the long Los Osos sewer controversy, board meetings have been cleared and local residents faced long, combative meetings — one in 2005 ended about 4 a.m.
In 2003, a board critic was ordered to stop reading a tale of a village oppressed by an evil queen expanding her kingdom — which she intended as a metaphor of the community services district’s proposed sewer system and the board president’s leadership.
The Los Osos district’s bylaws contain what appears to be the longest section on public comment out of all the policies reviewed by The Tribune.
Speakers who violate its rules of decorum may be ordered to leave a meeting and could be escorted out if they refuse to do so. If order cannot be restored, then the meeting room can be cleared and continued with only members of the media present.
Striving for order
Henson said she noticed how orderly meetings ran in the neighboring cities and decided the Oceano district should update its bylaws with some new wording.
The wording added to both the Oceano district and the sanitation district’s bylaws this month comes from a pamphlet on open government by the Institute for Local Government.
It is the research and education affiliate of the California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities, the lobbying groups for counties and cities, respectively.
The added paragraph, called “dealing with dissension,” allows a chair to clear a room if an individual or group “willfully interrupts a meeting and order cannot be restored.” Members of the media can stay and the board can only discuss items on its agenda.
“The question is, who decides what a disruption is?” asked Cathy Young, an Oceano resident and one of five petitioners who recently pushed the Oceano board to put any sale of the community’s water before voters.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the open government advocacy group Californians Aware, said the language is taken almost verbatim from the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law.
“In the 31 years I’ve been watching open meeting practices I may have heard of actual invocation of these rules three or four times,” he wrote in an email. “There are few rules that can’t be abused, but that has not been the experience with these.”
The sanitation district board had considered and rejected some stronger language that would have allowed the chair to request that police arrest an offending individual on a misdemeanor charge if he or she did not cease to cause a disturbance after two warnings.
The board felt the different language would be more appropriate, Seitz said.
The board made a few other changes to its bylaws, adding several paragraphs on how speakers can address the board during meetings and lengthening the time the district will retain electronic recordings of its board meetings to a year from two months.