One of the irritating things about serving in local government is having to deal with the gadflies. They are the regular attendees of public meeting city councils, school districts and boards of supervisors who have no specific business there.
Some are retired people with a keen interest in local politics – and strong opinions. Some have a bone to pick with an official or department. Others use meetings as a forum to espouse paranoid fantasies.
They might drone on during the public comment portion of a meeting about some off-topic point. Or even sing, or rant. They regularly criticize elected officials, often unfairly or inappropriately. They can be off-putting, even alarming, to people who have actual business before the body.
Still, just like any other member of the public, they have the right to address their elected officials without fear of reprisals or retributions. That right has been violated in Merced County.
Elected bodies have found novel ways to shut up the unruly public: adopting civility rules for speakers, severely curtailing speaking time limits and moving public comments until the end of meetings in the hope no one would wait that long to speak. But, at least to our knowledge, no body of elected officials has gone so far as to check the background of meeting attendees and share the details of their lives and contacts with law enforcement amongst themselves.
Merced County Sheriff Tom Cavallero did just that. He conducted a casual backgrounding – a “briefing” as he described it – of three people who had spoken before the board three or more times recently. One is a music teacher at Merced College who seems to be on a tear about sheriff cruisers parking in “no parking” spots; another is a young mother who is convinced her husband is not getting proper medical care in county jail; the third is a woman who has some issues with one particular sheriff’s captain. Cavallero apparently used his resources to find their history with law enforcement, check out their social media pages and then summarize the findings in a memo to the Board of Supervisors and other top county officials.
In addition to details about restraining orders and YouTube videos, Cavallero offered his own, rather derisive observations. Here’s an example: “What is remarkable about Mr. Spencer is the level of interest he takes in himself and his misguided notion that the rest of society shares that interest. It appears that he finds amusement in wasting the people’s time through frivolous interaction with government officials.”
Cavallero said this is the first time he’s written such memos, but who really knows? This one only became public because a reporter, Ramona Giwargis at The Bee’s cousin newspaper, the Merced Sun-Star got hold of it and made it public.
This was an egregious overstep that won’t engender the public’s trust in law enforcement. At the very least, Cavallero and other county officials should apologize to the people targeted in the memo. Better that they vow not to take that kind of action against citizens again.
On Tuesday, a handful of people upset with the revelation attended the Board of Supervisors meeting to denounce the memo and the actions by the sheriff during the public comment portion of the meeting. One of them would only identify herself as a full-time employee at the University of California, Merced. She said she was afraid that if she gave her name, the sheriff would background her as well. Evidently, she’s right to worry.