The San Diego County Board of Supervisors will consider a policy change Wednesday intended to curtail hate speech and inappropriate conduct during county meetings, following a contentious session last week in which some members of the public used racist and threatening language.
The turning point, following months of vitriolic public meetings, was when Jason Robo who said he wanted several of the supervisors dead — ostensibly in response to the county's continuing efforts combating COVID-19 — and directed a racial slur at Dr. Wilma Wooten, the count's public health director, who is Black.
Supervisor Nora Vargas was one of the county leaders on the receiving end of those comments made by Robo.
“You should resign,” Robo said. “Vargas, I can’t wait for your arteries to clog. They’re not doing it fast enough. And [Supervisor Nathan Fletcher] you should kill yourself.”
For months, there have been similar vile statements during public comment periods on vaccine mandates that have gone viral. But Tuesday’s racist comment directed at Wooten crossed the line for Vargas, who interrupted Robo and told him to apologize.
“I’m sorry excuse me, you’re not allowed to say that to her,” Vargas said. “Absolutely not, not under my f---ing watch.”
Fletcher said that, following last week's meeting, that while dissent is a healthy part of a functioning democracy, it has been sad to watch vaccine-mandate opponents launch personal attacks on board members and county officials simply because they don't agree with their policies.
"Hate speech and creating a hostile work environment for county staff will not be tolerated," Fletcher is quoted in a news release regarding the proposed policy change that was issued Tuesday. "The changes to our board of supervisors rules and procedures we have proposed are meant to curb the vulgar, racist and profane behavior that has occurred recently during the public comment portion of our meetings. "The actions of some are preventing good people who truly want to participate in their government from showing up to give their testimony and that must change," Fletcher said.
The policy the board will consider Wednesday will -- if passed -- allow for the adoption of a code of civil discourse developed by the National Conflict Resolution Center, take more stringent positions against harassment and abuse, give the board more discretion on the amount of time allotted to public speakers and enact other procedural changes intended to allow public participation.
"I have fought for many years so that our community has a voice in our county," Vargas is quoted in the same statement. "However, public comment at our meetings has become more vile and aggressive and I will not be a bystander to anti-Black, racist, hate speech," she said. "Our employees need to feel safe to do their jobs free of harassment. I am committed to fighting for equity and institutional change and it is our responsibility to bring back decency, kindness and respect to civil discourse."
Policies under consideration Wednesday include, the following, which has been copied from the news release:
- Adopt more stringent positions against harassment and abuse, which includes reading a statement on the county’s policy regarding discrimination and harassment into the record during the meeting
- Prohibit disruptive conduct, such as uttering loud or threatening language, whistling, clapping, stamping of feet, speaking over or interrupting the recognized speaker or other disruptive acts
- Adopt a code of civil discourse developed by the National Conflict Resolution Center as an aspirational goal for all meetings
- Create new parameters for group presentations allowing them only to be given for land use or adjudicatory matters, unless otherwise authorized by the board chair. Also, a maximum time period of four minutes will be established for individual members of each group within the 10-minute maximum, ensuring more equitable participation by all group members
- To better facilitate public comment on items in which there is substantial interest, public comment may be limited to one minute per individual if there are more than 10 individuals wishing to comment. The Brown Act allows the management of these time limits under Government Code Sec. 54954.3, and similar procedural rules have been adopted in many California governing bodies
- As is commonplace in many jurisdictions, a consent calendar will be developed for routine or administrative items for which debate is not anticipated
- Members of the public will be asked to bring their own technology to provide presentations, eliminating potential technical issues caused by the county, or to provide a presentation to the clerk of the board no later than 24-hours prior to the meeting
- Codify continued allowance of remote participation by the public to participate in board meetings
The policies, if supported by a three-vote majority of the board on Wednesday, will go into effect immediately, starting at the Nov. 16 board meeting.