Merced City Council recommended new decorum rules for council meetings this week that leaders say will protect speech, but detractors say are a roadblock to public input.
The new ordinance, if approved, would make it a misdemeanor to break the rules, which outlaw interrupting a speaker and continuing to speak past your allotted time, among other disruptions. The decorum rules recommendation passed with a 4-2 vote.
Councilmen Anthony Martinez and Matthew Serratto cast the "no" votes, both saying that the misdemeanor label seemed harsh.
A number of Merced residents spoke out against the decorum rules, saying speaking at a meeting is already intimidating enough.
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"When residents come up here to talk, a lot of them come with a lot of fear," Merced resident Isai Palma said while at the podium. "They're very timid. They don't know whether they're going to be heard, and now they have to worry about whether or not they're going to get in trouble."
The council has its own decorum policy, and the proposed policy was meant to maintain decorum among residents speaking publicly as well as with the members of the audience, according to Mayor Mike Murphy.
The "most vulnerable" citizens are at risk of unintentionally violating the rules, according to Michael Claiborne, an attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that advocates for historically excluded communities.
"I think that if there's an issue with decorum and making sure City Council meetings are orderly and they move forward, we can address that in ways that aren't going to chill speech. That aren't going to make members of the public afraid to come before this council because they're facing misdemeanor penalties," he said.
People who don't speak fluent English or those who are undocumented already face enough barriers to speaking at a public meeting, he said. "Don't criminalize free speech," he said.
Another resident, Sol Rivas, called the decorum rules an "appalling" and "degrading" policy that would affect free speech. The council should be looking for ways to make residents feel more welcome in the chambers, she said.
Murphy pushed back against the idea that the policy targets free speech, saying it does just the opposite. "It's really to protect the person who's at the podium," he said. "If we have distractions that are happening in the audience, the person at the podium isn't able to get their message across."
"You have to have rules of decorum," Murphy said. "This does zero to affect the content."
Councilman Michael Belluomini said he was comfortable with leaving the misdemeanor penalty in the ordinance given that it's a "fairly high standard."
The ordinance is enforceable if a meeting "is willfully interrupted by a person or group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of the meeting impossible," according to the ordinance.
Serratto, a supervising deputy district attorney for Merced County, said the penalty was too high. For example, a DUI, assault and domestic violence are all misdemeanors.
"Misdemeanors are punishable by six months in jail," he said. "To me that seems a little (harsh)."
*This story was corrected from an earlier version.