On Tuesday, Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Chair Virginia Bass will bring forward some proposed tweaks to the way board meetings are organized, including an option to cut the time limit for public speakers down from three minutes to two.
As board chair it’s Bass’s prerogative to make such changes to the board’s agenda template. That includes decisions on how to take public comment, and in the COVID-spawned era of virtual meetings, where anyone with a phone or laptop can participate, the volume of public commenting has increased dramatically, causing meetings to last much longer.
There are four possible changes to the agenda template (as quoted from the staff report):
- Limit all public comment to two minutes and ask each participant to state their name and identify the agenda item they are speaking about.
- Move “Public Comment on Non Agenda Items” to the end of the agenda just before “Closed Sessions”, allowing other important county business to be conducted more efficiently
- Limit the number of agenda items that are time-set as a means of improving the flow of the agenda during meetings
- Following appropriate Zoom etiquette which requires Board Members to remain on camera at all times during Board meetings as well as raising their hands to speak or muting themselves when not speaking to avoid confusion or speaking over each other
The reasoning behind these potential changes is left vague in a county staff report. It says Bass and Vice Chair Mike Wilson recently brainstormed with County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes in hopes of finding ways to “improve the public comment process” and conduct the county’s business “more efficiently and effectively” during board meetings.
If you’ve watched any of the board’s recent meetings, though, it’s not difficult to read between those lines. Not only has there been more public feedback but much of it has been dominated by angry-sounding residents voicing fierce opposition to COVID vaccines, mask mandates and other public health measures.
As their ranks have increased, with comments occupying more and more time each Tuesday, so too has the intensity of their rhetoric. Invocations of Nazi Germany are not uncommon, and a few comments have sounded overtly threatening — ominous warnings spoken with insurrectionist zeal.
At the November 9 meeting Fortuna pastor Mark Seitz accused the county of engaging in “medical apartheid” and remarked, “Normally, Western civilization has guarded free will and conscience as human rights.” (That term —”Western civilization” — is popular among white nationalists.)
Other speakers have falsely accused the county of violating the U.S. Constitution, the Nuremberg Code and its own regulations governing health emergencies.
At the board’s November 16 meeting a man who identified himself as Daniel Christopher said vaccine mandates are “evil” and added, “This isn’t America anymore.”
He was followed by a man who accused the board of perpetrating a fraud and hurting children, then a woman who claimed that COVID vaccines are a means of genocide. “You’re forcing people to die alone and in despair,” she told the board before launching into song — an original composition, presumably, with lyrics about “love and freedom, hate and tyranny.”
Last month, in an apparent attempt to abridge these disturbing and time-consuming comment marathons, the board voted unanimously to reduce the frequency of COVID pandemic updates delivered by Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman. (They’ll now be delivered to the board just once per month.)
But many from the local collection of anti-vaccine/anti-mask activists have proved willing to sit through entire meetings, finding creative ways to shoehorn their diatribes into seemingly unrelated agenda items.
“I think you can see now [that] as long as this fraudulent emergency health declaration continues, you’ll be getting a lot of feedback from a lot of us,” one of the most combative regular commenters said at the November 16 meeting. He’s been recruiting likeminded people via a group called the Humboldt Freedom Coalition, urging them to sign form letters and Zoom into meetings with scripted talking points. It’s unclear whether their goal is to change the supervisors’ minds or simply gum up the works by grinding the civic process to a standstill. “I’d leave probably two hours [for the public] to speak going forward,” the man suggested.
The comments from this ilk often cite outlandish and debunked conspiracy theories from the outer fringes of the internet — including claims that ivermectin “cures” COVID, that COVID doesn’t exist, that we’re in the midst of World War III and that the supervisors are being paid off by Big Pharma to promote vaccines.
At the board’s December 14th meeting, Hoffman’s employment contract was up for renewal. Hoffman, like other public health officers across the country — and like Dr. Anthony Fauci on the national level — has become the face of the pandemic for many and thus subject to an outsized share of the public vitriol.
A number of speakers called on the board to fire him, and as the meeting wore on the anger reached a fever pitch. A local astrologer and holistic health practitioner told the board, “You’re helping to destroy our freedom and bring in an authoritarian regime … very similar to what was going on in Nazi Germany.”
Another commenter referred to mild-mannered California Assemblymember Jim Woods, who’d addressed the meeting earlier in the day, as “Tyrant Woods” before angrily telling the board, “Your job is to protect our God-given rights, not to inform us on medical information — or disinformation. …
“Honestly, you should watch out,” he continued. “And in the end, God wins. You guys are really messing with something.”
A few minutes later a different commenter said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have any more agendas until we get our freedoms back in this county.” He suggested that the public needs to see a “personal and public audit” of each supervisor to learn whether they’re “getting [paid] to push an agenda that is unhealthy.”
“Audit every aspect of their lives,” he said. “These people think they’re higher than power, higher than law. We’re gonna get to the bottom of what’s going on.”
The board should end its virtual meetings and resume gathering inside board chambers, he argued. Referring to the county supervisors he said, “Bring meetings back in-person and they’ll have a hard time walking down the street, guarantee it.”
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Bass said her goal is not to skirt the public process but rather to ensure that the county’s business gets done. She noted that the influx of public participation has been happening nationwide, and many jurisdictions have changed up their public processes. Orange County, for example, temporarily restricted public commenters to just 30 seconds apiece.
Humboldt County officials have been comparing notes with other counties and exploring “best practices” for enabling participation while making sure meetings progress smoothly, Bass said.
She’s not sure yet whether she’ll limit speakers to two minutes instead of three but said she likes the idea of scheduling the public comment period on non-agenda items to the end of the meeting.
Bass noted that putting time limits on public comments doesn’t violate their freedom of speech. State law just says everyone must be given the same amount of time.
More public participation is a good thing, she said, “but it comes to a point where we’ve still got to get the county’s work done.”
As for the threatening comments, Bass noted that those are also a nationwide phenomenon. She and the rest of the board want to make sure the public remains respectful, so when the meetings return to board chambers later this year, she won’t hesitate to clear the room if and when people fail to live up to that standard, she said.
She added that Sheriff Billy Honsal worked up some advisory language to warn people that if they fail to remain civil they may be removed from the chambers or arrested.