Orange County Board of Supervisors Agrees to Change Public Comment Rules

Royalty may not suffer criticism but government officials will have to under a new settlement agreement that allows the public to call out individual Orange County supervisors during public meetings. 

The Orange County board of supervisors gather during a meeting in Santa Ana, Calif. on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Amy Taxin)

(CN) — The public will have the last word in Orange County, California. The county on Tuesday agreed in a settlement to update its public comment rules and allow speakers to direct their comments at individual elected officials during public meetings.

The dispute might sound like something out of the comedy “Parks and Rec,” or any other satire on small government agencies, but the American Civil Liberties Union says the change will undo a key rule controlling Orange County Board of Supervisors meetings.  

“It was a kind of royal court where criticism directed at individual supervisors could not be heard. This was clearly unlawful,” said attorney Peter Eliasberg with the ACLU of Southern California in a statement that accompanied the settlement agreement.

The complaint was filed in 2019 by the ACLU chapter on behalf of the People’s Homeless Task Force, a local advocacy group, after a series of public meetings about homeless encampments. 

In 2018, the county cleared about 1,000 people who lived in a massive encampment along the Santa Ana River. A separate federal lawsuit was filed against the county after all those people were forced into the community and into overcrowded shelters.

The ACLU argued Orange County supervisors were combative when people tried to bring up issues around homelessness and supervisors made it difficult for the public to comment during meetings. In its lawsuit, the ACLU said the county’s rule that required people to give their personal information before commenting at meetings had a “chilling effect.”

County supervisors were confrontational, and some supervisors interrupted and openly criticized speakers, the ACLU argued. They said the county’s rules violated the state’s landmark Brown Act, which guarantees the public the right to attend and participate at local government meetings.

Under the settlement filed on Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, the county Board of Supervisors will also allow people to comment under a pseudonym or alias during public meetings.

The settlement agreement does not mention if the county will move its public comment period to the beginning of its board meetings. Advocates argue the time to make comments is only opened after the regular board meeting, which can sometimes stretch for hours at a time and essentially wear out the public.

Orange County officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

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