Disorderly events ordinance

Council stops for ‘yellow light’

Steve Bertagna was clearly frustrated. He thought that when the City Council approved a disorderly events ordinance last fall, the deal was done. Now, following an unsuccessful referendum effort and a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union, Mayor Andy Holcombe wanted to rewrite it.

“We haven’t even tried the ordinance yet,” the councilman complained. “We’ve been talking about this for years, and the Police Department put in an incredible amount of effort to come up with an ordinance in the ‘Chico way.’ The referendum drive failed. I just don’t think it’s in the city’s interest to start over when we haven’t even tried it.”

Unfortunately for Bertagna and fellow Councilman Larry Wahl, who agreed with him, the five other members of the City Council voted Tuesday night (Jan. 15) to revisit the ordinance by sending it to the Internal Affairs Committee for reworking. In the meantime, it remains in effect.

Holcombe was concerned that the ordinance was having a “reverse effect"—instead of improving police-community relations, it was making them worse. “Why is an ordinance meant to help the police being turned against the police?” he asked.

It’s too broad, he stated, because it creates a situation in which people who are doing nothing wrong can have their right to assemble denied because a small number of others are doing something wrong, and because it applies to rallies and demonstrations as well as parties.

Councilman Tom Nickell, a retired Highway Patrol officer, was a strong voice for reconsideration. Noting that his and other councilmembers’ houses had been vandalized following the council’s first vote on the issue—"a form of terrorism,” he called it—he added that nevertheless, after “talking about it with many people,” he agreed with Holcombe.

Vice Mayor Ann Schwab likened the referendum drive to a “yellow light” warning the city to slow down on the issue. And Councilwoman Mary Flynn said the drive, which came up short on valid signatures among the nearly 5,000 submitted, had “gotten my attention” and was “for me a lesson in acknowledging we might make mistakes.”

More than a dozen people from the audience spoke against the ordinance, saying mostly that it was an attack on their First Amendment right to assemble. Justin Vodden, for example, said the ordinance “as a tool was a sledgehammer when a tack hammer was needed.”

Leslie Johnson, a local attorney, charged that “the ordinance as presently written is clearly unconstitutional and would not withstand challenge in court. … It’s telling people it’s illegal to be in the company of people doing something illegal, even if they’re not doing it.”

Wahl noted, however, that City Attorney Lori Barker had determined the ordinance was constitutional. Asked about that during a break in the meeting, Barker said her office had seen nothing in the ordinance “that couldn’t withstand challenge.” She had not had time to respond to the ACLU’s letter last week stating that it was clearly unconstitutional but said she intended to do so.

Ultimately the council voted 5-2 to have the IAC hold a special public brainstorming meeting on the ordinance and get back to the council with a recommendation by May, before college students leave town.