Snowing in City Hall: Sacramento’s delicate political snowflakes sideline public discourse

City Council votes to make it harder for working people to speak to them

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the June 1, 2017, issue.

The snowflakes on the Sacramento City Council are making it prohibitively difficult for real people to address them in public.

On May 23, council members voted 8-1 to continue an “experiment” that will limit the off-script interactions they have with their constituents. The two-pronged approach means weekly meetings will start an hour earlier, at 5 p.m., and that public comment on nonagenda items will be taken at the beginning of meetings, rather than at the end.

That means people just leaving work in most cases will be unable to address their elected representatives on subjects the council isn’t voting on that day. In the past, that’s meant topics as random as resident concerns about problem businesses, genial statements about upcoming community events or whatever happens to be on the mind of serial public commenter Mac Worthy.

But ever since the advent of the local Right to Rest movement in December 2015, it’s also meant a constant chorus of pleas for elected representatives to lift an unlawful camping ordinance that targets homeless people.

“This is another obvious attempt at silencing us,” James Lee Clark, a homelessness activist better known as “Faygo,” told council members last week.

Clark noted the council’s other moves to quiet public criticism, like prohibiting applause and forbidding speakers from addressing their elected representatives directly. Fittingly, council members considered this latest rule-change at the new earlier start time—and during a portion of their agenda that is rarely discussed.

Even so, approximately two dozen residents spoke out on a measure they condemned for subverting the democratic process.

“If that’s not silencing working class people, I don’t know what is,” Clark said.

The official rationale for the changes was that the mayor and council “wish[ed] to review council meeting protocols for better interaction with the city residents and constituents.”

But that may be code for, “Elected officials are starting to lose it.”

Since taking office in January, Mayor Darrell Steinberg, in particular, has publicly clashed with individuals and activists who have pressed the city to stop arresting homeless residents and to boost oversight of the Police Department. These public spats have occurred even when the council and public agreed on an issue.

On March 21, for example, Steinberg interrupted speakers who opposed the Police Department’s request to delay release of videos documenting portions of last year’s fatal shooting of Dazion Flenaugh.

The City Council later denied the Police Department’s request, but Steinberg took issue with speakers who accused police of murdering the 40-year-old Flenaugh, who was holding a 13-inch kitchen knife and experiencing some sort of mental health crisis when two officers shot him from a distance of 25 feet in April of last year.

Later that same meeting, a visibly frustrated Steinberg said he would only consider Councilman Allen Warren’s homeless safe ground proposal if Warren could get people to stop mentioning the unlawful camping ordinance, which makes it illegal for homeless residents to sleep outdoors.

Last Tuesday, Steinberg referred to that debate indirectly. “As much drama as there sometimes is in this chamber around one issue,” Steinberg said, his priority was making sure people could speak on items the council was actually voting on. “So I think this is reasonable and fair,” he added.

Councilman Jeff Harris said he would support the “temporary experiment,” but acknowledged he would have been hard-pressed to make the earlier time back when he was an independent contractor.

Last week’s change ends an equally criticized, three-year experiment during which the council relegated open public comment to the end of meetings, which often occurred late at night.