City Council

Opposition to new ordinance muted but evident

Out with the old, in with the new—disorderly events ordinance, that is.

In the latest development in the long and convoluted effort to give Chico police more tools for handling unruly crowds, the Chico City Council voted to throw out the controversial ordinance it passed last fall in favor of one that, at its meeting Tuesday (April 1), was greeted much more warmly than its predecessor—though once again freedom of speech and other issues emerged.

Interestingly, the new ordinance is less specific than the one it will replace.

The current law specifies that police can shut down gatherings at which they witness the commission of three misdemeanors or violations of city ordinances, objects such as rocks or bottles being thrown, or a felony being committed.

The new ordinance focuses more broadly on safety. It allows the police to disperse crowds, partially or wholly, when an event becomes violent or is “otherwise of a nature that creates a danger to the safety of other attendees at the event, the public or public safety officers responding to the event.”

It also allows dispersal when, “due to the crowded nature of an event, the officers are unable to obtain access to reported or observed illegal activity or a medical emergency.”

People who fail to disperse can be cited for an infraction punishable by up to a $1,000 fine, said City Attorney Lori Barker, who drafted the new ordinance.

Police Chief Bruce Hagerty told the council he believed the new ordinance would be effective.

Several speakers, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Chico Peace and Justice Center, told the council that, while at first reading the law was an improvement, they hadn’t had sufficient time to review it closely and asked that a decision be postponed. Councilmembers responded that the ordinance would be back for final reading in two weeks and then would not go into effect for 30 days, during which time it could be changed.

Gary Burton, secretary of the new local chapter of the ACLU, said he worried that the ordinance could be used to suppress speech. Sue Hilderbrand, director of the CP&JC, said some of her board members “had grave concerns about the protection of political speech.”

Jessica Allen, a leader in an unsuccessful referendum drive last year to overturn the previous ordinance, argued that the law “should exclude political demonstrations, period.” And she noted that it included no method for tracking its use.

Justin Vodden agreed that there should be some method of review for those asked to disperse. As it stands, only those cited for an infraction have recourse—in court.

Evanne O’Donnell, managing attorney at Legal Services of Northern California, said that “what concerns me is that this allows the police to order innocent people to disperse to get to someone doing something illegal. That’s where I might tweak it a little.”

“I understand the fear,” responded Councilman Tom Nickell, a retired highway patrolman. But “we have to have faith and trust in the people who wear that badge. … If the police violate this policy, I’ll be the first to yank it off the books.”

Several speakers said the law should be rewritten to focus on “alcohol-fueled events,” but Barker responded that her goal in drafting it had been to focus on behavior, not context. All kinds of events can become unruly, she suggested, and besides it’s often hard for the police to know what role alcohol has played.

“How would you respond to political demonstrations?” Nickell asked Hagerty. The chief answered by stating that officers are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. If some “anti” group used violence to disrupt a peaceful political demonstration, he said, “we’d center our attention on the ‘anti’ group. We wouldn’t shut down the political process.”

In the end councilmembers voted unanimously, with Councilwoman Mary Flynn absent, to approve an initial reading of the ordinance, with a single line added stating, perhaps redundantly, that the council did not intend it to be applied to “peaceful assemblies or gatherings.” They also agreed to track it for a year—though how wasn’t specified—and revisit it then. It will come up for a final vote on April 15.

In other news, the council agreed, at the request of Councilman Larry Wahl, to look into making labor negotiations more transparent.

As it stands, the city negotiates with its nine unions behind closed doors and then puts the final agreement on the council’s consent agenda. As a result, the public doesn’t hear about it and it’s usually approved without discussion.

With the city’s current budget quandary, the process is coming under scrutiny. “The council has an obligation to be prudent stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Wahl stated, “and we need a level of transparency in how we spend money on 80 percent of our budget, which is salaries.”

Councilmembers seemed to agree, but Mayor Andy Holcombe warned against changing the process “in midstream” while current negotiations are taking place.

One complication, Human Resources Director Dan Fulks noted, was that the current negotiations process was itself a negotiated matter. It would have to be renegotiated to be changed.

There was much discussion about how to create more transparency. Wahl wanted, at a minimum, both initial offers and the final agreement to be “sunshined” and for the council to take the lead in changing the process; Holcombe wanted to set up an ad-hoc committee “to flesh out the ideas.” There seemed to be consensus that, at the very least, the council should hold a public hearing on any new labor agreement, though no action was taken.

In the end the council voted, with Holcombe dissenting, to refer the matter to its Internal Affairs Committee.