Editorials

Shutting down council meetings, kicking out speakers. Sacramento, is this who we are?

Speaker escorted out of City Council Chambers for going over two minutes

Brrazey Liberty, a leader of @BLMSacramento, escorted out of City Council Chambers by police. He went over his allotted two minutes of speaking.
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Brrazey Liberty, a leader of @BLMSacramento, escorted out of City Council Chambers by police. He went over his allotted two minutes of speaking.

Incivility at government meetings is as old as the first gavel. Still, the heckling, abuse, disruption and general contempt that have too often characterized recent Sacramento City Council meetings have become dispiriting and counterproductive. Can we all just take a breath?

Not a month seems to go by now without someone being hauled from the council chambers by police, typically for profanity and continuing to excoriate the mayor and councilmembers beyond the allotted time for public comment.

Let’s get real. This city, like all cities, has some real problems. It also has a lot of good people who sincerely want to solve them, on both sides of the council dais.

Particularly since the police shooting of Stephon Clark in March – and the disruptions led in its aftermath by Clark’s distraught brother – hostility, defensiveness and dismissiveness have been a problem across the board among activists, the mayor and council. Those impulses are as corrosive as they are understandable.

Now matters have degenerated to the point that the council has floated a 30- to 90-day ban on “abusive or threatening” protesters at council meetings, a desperate measure that is probably illegal under the Brown Act. Though the law does allow government bodies to bar public comment that incites violence or otherwise becomes disruptive, troublesome people can’t be pre-empted from speaking just because of what they might do.

On Tuesday, citizen outrage at that idea raised the temperature of one public commenter after another, until a completely off-point screed on “identity politics” by a right-wing gadfly tipped the room into chaos.

There was shouting. There were F-bombs. Somebody whipped out a dog whistle. Hasty adjournment ensued.

Let’s get real. This city, like all cities, has some real problems. It also has a lot of good people who sincerely want to solve them, on both sides of the council dais.

It perhaps hasn’t helped that council members often all but hold their noses during public comment periods, whispering in sidebars and checking their phones or leaving the room altogether for extended periods while some citizen is speaking.

Nor have relations been necessarily improved by the antics of out-of-town protesters. Or by cheap Nazi references in a city whose mayor is not only known as an earnest progressive, but also as the husband of a cantor and the brother of a rabbi.

Activists are right to keep up the pressure on injustices that have festered for too long, including homelessness and excessive police force. But Mayor Darrell Steinberg and councilmembers are also right to want concerned citizens to work with them toward serious solutions and stop using them as props for self-serving political theater.

Meanwhile, anyone who has ever witnessed the ranting of government gadflies knows that some limits on discourse have to be enforced or unstable people will filibuster and nothing will get done.

Some councils move the public comment period to the end of meetings, just for this last reason. We don’t advocate that; the public shouldn’t have to wait hours to be heard.

One small step that might help, however, would be crystal clear rules for public comment that are posted next to the sign-up sheet, announced verbally at the period’s start and enforced with absolute uniformity by the mayor and council. Another would be a realization by local activists that their cause isn’t helped by the constant hurling of abuse, which is a turn-off.

Shouting and sneering don’t make cities better. Respect and compromise do.

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