BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Between COVID-19 mandates, election controversy, and several other issues, the last few years it's become common to see disruption and discord among public meetings. That's why lawmakers decided to add an update to the California Brown Act to address the increase in unruly behavior.
Those behind Senate Bill 1100 said that while the Brown Act allowed officials to remove a person for "willful disruption", they said the reasoning was too vague. Under the new law, a person may now be removed, after being warned, for intentionally disrupting a meeting a way that impairs the orderly conduct of that meeting.
“I remember governing the board under the Kern High School District during COVID-19, during the lockdowns, during masking, during vaccines, and people are very passionate with those issues when they're close to home," said newly elected Kern County District 3 Supervisor Jeff Flores.
Flores has had experience with disruptive meetings, first as a Kern High School District boardmember and now as chairman for the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
"People are equally passionate about our elections. People have those passions, they're upset, they have questions, they're skeptical, but we want to temper that skepticism," he said. "The way we do that is to conduct a meeting that’s orderly, that's fair, that we hear people in the proper order and that people are respectful of one another so that our board can govern accordingly."
During the last board of supervisors meeting tensions heated up over this last election and the voting machines used to count Kern voters ballots. While speakers during that portion of the meeting were given two minutes to address the board, some refused to leave after their time was up. Tensions continued as audience members shouted remarks at other speakers.
For these members they feel SB 1100 is an attempt from lawmakers to keep their voices from being heard.
“If you think it’s healthy to continue to create laws to silence constituents, and that’s what’s going on here, is that they will write as many laws as they can," said David Clements, an attendee of the supervisors meeting. Clements refused to give up the podium until he finished speaking, even after supervisors called for the nest speaker.
Authors of SB 1100 said the new law isn’t regulating content of speech during meetings but rather targeting when that speech is used to drown out the viewpoints of others.
"The real pressure-relief valve that needs to be used here is to let people be heard," Clements said.
Public government meetings are not the only meetings impacted by audience discord. While serving on the KHSD board, Flores experienced parents and students yelling over board members and other speakers over a variety of topics. These topics ranged from mask mandates, remote learning, to LGBTQ+ matters, to racial inequality in the district.
Current member of the KHSD board Bryan Batey said over an email that the board understands the many frustrations parents and students have felt over the years.
"The COVID years were stressful for parents, students, and teachers alike," he wrote. "Personally, I always appreciated parents and community members coming to our meetings and sharing their thoughts and concerns. A large part of a school board member's job is to listen to community concerns and look for ways to address these concerns."
Batey said as things have begun to return to a normal setting, the level of stress at the board meetings has declined substantially.
To read the entirety of SB 1100, see below: