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California Politics: When government meetings get out of hand

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors meet in the County Administration Center on Tuesday.
(Rob Nikolewski / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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What was supposed to be a five-minute recess lasted more than 48 minutes.

And when the recess during the Oct. 5 meeting of the Los Gatos Town Council ended, the community’s mayor was no longer in the room. Neither were members of the public — having been instructed that they could continue to listen and participate by Zoom, the result of a tense few minutes earlier in the meeting of shouting and comments directed toward the son of the then-Mayor Marico Soyac. At a subsequent town council meeting that was held entirely online, protesters waited outside Soyac’s house.

It’s a familiar story to officials serving in cities, counties and school districts across California and the nation. The shouting, the threats and the efforts to shut down meetings have become common in the last two years, especially after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were imposed by local officials.

“Sadly, Los Gatos is not alone,” Mayor Rob Rennie told members of the state Senate Governance and Finance Committee last week.

And it’s why one of the Bay Area town’s representatives in the Legislature, state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) has decided that California’s 69-year-old open meetings law doesn’t do enough to protect public officials or the democratic process from angry and potentially violent demonstrations.

‘This is about enhancing democracy’

Cortese’s effort, Senate Bill 1100, cleared its first legislative hurdle last week. It would make changes to what’s known as the Brown Act, enacted in 1953 to ensure full public access to local government meetings.

“The people insist on remaining informed,” states the law written by the late Assemblymember Ralph Brown, a Central Valley Democrat whose eponymous statute ensures full access to government meetings and information about what actions might be taken.

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There have been many modifications to the Brown Act in the decades since its enactment. Cortese’s proposal, backed by a coalition of local governments, seeks to standardize the procedures for when public participation is so unruly that it prevents a government entity from carrying out its business.

“Across California, public officials and public attendees continue to deal with disorderly conduct during meetings at such a high magnitude that critical business, and the legislative process as a whole, has become impaired,” Cortese said during last week’s committee hearing on SB 1100.

The bill would empower the “presiding member” of a government body to have an unruly member of the public removed from the room or, in the case of a group of individuals, possibly close the hearing room to all but staff members and the news media. The trigger to do so would be a finding that members of the public were “willfully interrupting” the proceedings.

So how would “willfully interrupting” be defined? The current text of SB 1100 says the phrase means “intentionally engaging in behavior during a meeting of a legislative body that substantially impairs or renders infeasible the orderly conduct of the meeting” and can include threats against a government official or anyone else’s constitutional rights.

The bill’s supporters say the Brown Act should offer a clear statewide standard for what’s considered to be out-of-bounds behavior and that clarity is needed regarding how to handle unruly individuals, not just groups. SB 1100 also states those individuals must be given “a reasonable opportunity to cease the disruptive behavior.”

“This is about enhancing democracy,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who voted for the bill during the committee hearing. “We need to be very clear: When people are disrupting public meetings, that’s not promoting democracy — that is undermining democracy.”

Does Newsom’s gas relief plan put Democrats in a bind?

Over $9 a gallon gas in Gorda, on California Highway 1 about 30 miles north of San Simeon.
(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Gov. Gavin Newsom made a splash Wednesday with his long-awaited proposal to provide relief to Californians who are struggling with high gas prices. But his plan appears at odds with the direction in which legislative leaders were headed — an inauspicious kickoff to negotiations in the state Capitol and one that Democrats would have likely preferred to avoid.

The governor’s proposal would send $400 debit cards to vehicle owners — with a two-vehicle limit — and give grants to public transit to help provide free rides for those who don’t have cars. His announcement this week reaffirmed his support for a temporary pause in adjusting the state’s fuel excise tax for inflation in July.

In all, Newsom’s office pegs the cost of the proposal at $11 billion. It‘s a much broader approach than ideas floated by legislative Democrats to focus much of the help on the state’s low- and middle-income residents. And until there’s some resolution of the differences, Republican lawmakers and candidates will almost certainly say that Californians who are struggling to make ends meet need immediate help.

Single-payer analysis: higher government costs?

Dr. Steven Florman of Stacy Medical Center with Physician Assistant-Certified Calvin Davis on March 17, 2021.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been seven weeks since an ambitious plan to create a universal healthcare system in California fizzled in the Legislature. But only now is the potential cost of the failed proposal coming into view.

Last week, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office submitted a 21-page assessment of the costs associated with what was known as “CalCare”— the legislation failed to clear the Assembly before its Jan. 31 deadline — to the chairman and vice-chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee. Even so, it’s possible the LAO report will provide a starting point for future efforts — especially as supporters of single-payer healthcare have insisted this year’s setback was not the end of the discussion.

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The analysis projects total costs to state government under a California single-payer healthcare system would be higher than what’s being spent now, somewhere between an additional 2% a year ($9 billion) and 14% a year ($67 billion).

But there are important caveats to the assessment, as the analysts pointed out. First, the higher government costs do not take into account the lower or eliminated private sector costs of healthcare. And second, the report notes that any cost estimate is subject to “extraordinary uncertainty,” and should be treated as a preliminary assessment.

“Key drivers of uncertainty,” the LAO report notes, “include a lack of detailed data on certain components of existing healthcare expenditures, the unprecedented nature of the transformation of the state’s healthcare delivery and financing system that would occur under CalCare, and gaps and disagreements in the research around the impacts CalCare’s specific changes would have on costs.”

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California politics lightning round

— At the heart of Newsom’s proposal to compel people into court-ordered treatment for mental illness and addiction is a sense of urgency, even if the details remain elusive.

— The governor signed a new law on Tuesday to make abortions cheaper for people on private insurance plans, the first of more than a dozen bills the state’s Democratic leaders plan to pass this year to prepare for a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could overturn Roe vs. Wade.

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— Justice Patricia Guerrero was confirmed Tuesday as the first Latina to serve on the California Supreme Court.

— California is the latest state trying to remove involuntary servitude as a constitutionally protected form of punishment, a move aimed at formally severing the remnants of slavery from the law.

— The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, is a landmark 1970 law for preserving the state’s beauty but one with a long history of backfiring.

— San Francisco Mayor London Breed is taking on the city’s famed far-left political forces. Can she prevail?

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