When the county Board of Supervisors meets today to vote on the Los Osos sewer, it is almost certain that those who oppose the collection and treatment plant will, as they have done for years, speak against it.
It is equally certain that there will be a Sheriff’s Department presence in the supervisors’ chambers.
Is law enforcement on hand to intimidate the Los Osos sewer critics, as the latter group maintains?
Or are the supervisors merely making sure that things don’t get out of hand, as they contend?What are you looking at me for? I don’t know the answer.
I do have a point of view, though: I think both sides believe their perceptions are accurate.I also think both sides have a point.
Let’s start the discussion with the one thing everyone agrees on: These folks have the right to express their points of view.
Some would argue that they have not only a right, but an obligation. Put me in that crowd; I come from New England and have covered and participated in town meetings, the purest form of democracy.
What, then, about the content of those who speak at public meetings? Here things get a bit dicey.The Los Osos sewer critics — and let’s face it, that’s who this discussion is about, despite denials — get, shall we say, vigorous in their criticism of the county government.
Fully cognizant of their right and obligation to speak out, they fling every verbal stone in the sack at the county government, especially Supervisor Bruce Gibson and Public Works Director Paavo Ogren.
Their attacks are larded with sarcasm, condescension, anger, the occasional threat to sue, poorly veiled suggestions that something criminal is taking place, and so on and so forth.
You can see why the Board of Supervisors might want to wash out their mouths with soap and Los Osos water.
But supervisors let the vituperation go by because individual supervisors know that the speakers are entitled to say those things.
That freedom to be objectionable, even obnoxious, is deeply rooted in this nation’s history and psyche. The Supreme Court underscored it earlier this month when they ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church.
The church is a vile collection of misanthropes who show up at military funerals and deride the dead.
They have the right to speak, the high court said, after the father of one of the dead soldiers sued to shut up these purveyors of cruelty.
The folks who show up today to vilify the county Board of Supervisors also have the right to criticize forcefully.
But what about the deputy standing glumly at the back of the room? Isn’t he inhibiting speech?If that is what the supervisors had in mind when they asked for the deputy, they failed miserably in their quest.
The Los Osos folks have hardly been stifled; au contraire. The deputy’s presence has merely given them one more talking point.
The deputies are not there to prevent speech. They are on hand in case words become actions. There is nothing new about this.
Who brought them on board this time around? The board, through the county administrator, asked the sheriff.
“The concern is that during public comment some of the speakers appear to be getting more agitated,” said Sheriff Ian Parkinson.
Parkinson says he has not asked what the topic is, and it doesn’t really matter.
“What really concerns me,” he said, “is the behavior. If the behavior is being seen as increasingly hostile, then I have a duty to make sure that it does not reach a level of violence. I believe that I have a duty and responsibility to protect the Board of Supervisors.”
I asked Supervisors Adam Hill and Frank Mecham and former Supervisor Shirley Bianchi what circumstances would make them uneasy enough to call in a deputy.
Both Hill and Mecham said they will call in deputies for hearings that are likely to be contentious — the viewshed ordinance, the Santa Margarita Ranch, the Oceano Dunes.
But Bianchi seemed to me to sum it up best. “It’s your gut reaction,” she said.“You never know when someone is going to step over that line.”
No doubt the weekly speakers from Los Osos would huff with indignation and call it preposterous that anyone would consider them potentially violent.
To that, I have two words: Gabrielle Giffords.
The attempted murder in a public place of the Arizona congresswoman — a public servant — has made all elected officials nervous.
Here is Parkinson on that subject. “I have no reason to believe that an act of violence will occur, but in light of other events throughout the country I am not willing to take that chance.”
It’s dispiriting to admit, but in our nation we have come to a place where public officials have to say, “better safe than sorry.”
And, as Mecham points out, the protection is not solely for supervisors.
“We all want folks to feel safe and comfortable during hearings at the board, be it the clerk or simply other folks in the audience that are there for other items,” Mecham wrote.
So, Los Osos folks (and others who have a beef), go ahead and vent, as vigorously as you want.But be aware that, alas, you are doing so in a dangerous age, and the people behind the dais — whose predecessors, by the way, once suggested that bullet-proof glass be installed — must now worry that a citizen exercising his or her right to speak will take it a step beyond, to the physical.