Shasta County community member Christian Gardinier speaks with a Shasta County Sheriff’s Deputy while the Board is in recess.
8/31/23 10:45 am: The article has been updated to clarify when a Board meeting could be closed to the public.
8.31.23 8:30 am: The article has been updated to clarify sources.
Shasta County Supervisor Patrick Jones has increasingly struggled to apply and enforce board policy and procedures around public comment and decorum over the last few months.
On August 15, Chair Jones had to shut down the board meeting for almost two hours after a member of the public, Nathan Pinkney, refused to leave the Board Chambers when told to do so, claiming unfair and unequal enforcement of board policies. That’s why members of the public and the press were watching closely yesterday, August 29, as Chair Jones opened the meeting with an announcement about how the Chamber rules were changing.
Citing California State Bill 1100, Jones said he would no longer be giving three warnings to members of the public he deems disruptive, but would instead offer only one warning before insisting they voluntarily leave the room.
“If that person does not voluntarily leave the board room,” Jones continued “we will take a quick ten minute recess and clear the entire room and I will ask that you pick up all your personal belongings. Media will also be asked to leave the room for ten minutes and then we will resume the meeting. That same person or persons that were disruptive will not be allowed back into the board meeting and deputies with the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department will make a criminal prosecution for trespassing if that same person or persons tries to reenter the room. This is the new law with regards to SB 1100 and we will be enacting that today.”
A few hours into the public meeting Jones followed through, singling out community member Christian Gardinier for calling out a comment from the floor during another speaker’s three minutes of public comment time. Since this was Gardinier’s second offense, Jones asked him to immediately leave the room.
Gardinier refused and Jones called a ten minute recess. But when the rest of the public left, Gardinier did not. Press, including journalists from KRCR, the Record Searchlight and Shasta Scout, who were recording and taking photos of the unfolding situation, also refused to leave.
Speaking by phone today, Jones said that a Shasta Scout reporter’s decision to “disobey the orders of the Chair, the CEO and armed law enforcement” was “inappropriate.”
“I asked to clear the room . . . and I expect that you would obey and clear the room,” Jones said.
David Loy, the Legal Director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting constitutional rights, said that Jones’s actions pose a number of legal concerns related to First Amendment rights, including freedom of the press.
To begin with, he said, SB 1100 only allows an individual to be removed from the public meeting if they cause a real disruption to the meeting.
“If someone simply made a remark from the audience while someone else is speaking from the podium,” Loy said, “I’m not sure that an incidental brief remark even rises to the level of a disruption. Democracy is a little messy and people may mutter under their breath and that may or may not disrupt the meeting.”
Loy also said that SB 1100 doesn’t actually address calling a recess, clearing the board room, or refusing to allow an individual to return after the recess ended. However the Brown Act, Loy said, does appear to allow a government board to bar readmission of those who disturbed the meeting, although the Brown Act also requires three warnings before someone is removed.
Loy explained that while neither SB 1100 nor the Brown Act regulates when or how a recess is called or what conditions may be attached to it, under general First Amendment principles, it seems clear, he said, that the government may not legally discriminate against individual members of the press by ordering them to leave when other members of the public still remain, as happened during yesterday’s meeting.
Chair Jones told Shasta Scout that he was disappointed in the outcome of his disciplinary action during the August 29 meeting, saying Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson did not come through on a plan Jones claims they developed together several days ago. That plan, Jones said, would have included the arrest of anyone who reentered the board room after being told by the Chair to leave.
Instead, Jones said, the Sheriff went “off script” and did not direct his deputies to enforce Penal Code Section 403, which allows someone who is disturbing a public meeting to be charged with a misdemeanor. Jones said he is hoping for a change of heart on the Sheriff’s part because he needs his help to restore order.
But, Jones said, “It’s up to him. I can only ask this of him. I can’t tell him what to do.”
The courts have upheld the right of officials to remove a member of the public from meetings when they’re disruptive, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office told Shasta Scout today by email. But in the case of yesterday’s incident, the statement indicated, deputies interviewed the subject in question and determined there was not a probable cause for an arrest which was why the individual was allowed to return to the chambers.
“Our deputies will continue to work with the board to assist in resolving incidents as they occur,” the Sheriff’s Office communication said, “up to and including a citation or physical arrest pursuant to appropriate and applicable laws.”
Jones said if the Sheriff continues to choose not to enforce his orders during meetings, he’ll have to take one of two other approaches to regain decorum in meetings.
If a board meeting is interrupted one more time Jones told Shasta Scout he will ask board members to vote to place public comment at the end of each meeting instead of the beginning. That would also help keep the meeting on schedule, he said, saving staff time, and money.
If that approach doesn’t work, Jones said he can always ask the board to close the meetings to the public, allowing only the press to attend, although he’d rather not take that course of action.
Jones is right that either option would be legal under the Brown Act, but closing the Board to all members of the public could mostly likely only be done in an emergent circumstance, not as an ongoing practice, according to Loy.
According to Gardinier, and other members of the public, Jones’s enforcement of public meeting decorum is problematic in large part because it is so inconsistent.
“When Jones issues edicts,” Gardinier told Shasta Scout by email, “he does so arbitrarily and capriciously. What research I have found is that a chair of such meetings has to be fair and treat everybody the same.”
Equal enforcement of board room behavior is an important aspect of First Amendment rights, because unequal enforcement is another way to restrict free speech, First Amendment Coalition attorney Loy said.
Asked whether he equally enforces public meeting rules Jones answered with an unequivocal “no.”
But he also said when it comes to disruptive behavior, he certainly intends to. “I don’t catch everyone. Is it fair? maybe not. I’m doing the best I can (to respond to) everyone who’s calling out.”
What Jones said he is not interested in trying to make equal is the amount of time public speakers are allowed to comment. While most speakers get only three minutes, Jones sometimes allows people to speak longer. That happens, he said, when someone has “something very important to say.”
When asked whether his being allowed to unilaterally make the decision on what is most important for the board and public to hear is offering opportunities for him to censor the free speech of those not chosen, Jones demurred.
“That’s hogwash,” he said.
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