The San Fernando Council Meeting had only gone on for 30 minutes Tuesday, Sept. 5, when it ended abruptly.
The council did not have a quorum to continue. The council needs at least three members present to conduct business. Council members Antonio Lopez and Robert Gonzales were absent, and Council member Jaime Soto disappeared after disputing the council’s rulebook.
Before any item on the agenda was discussed or public comments could be heard, City Attorney Loyd Pilchen read aloud to those present from the Decorum and Order section of the council’s Procedural Manual — used by the council to run its meetings — that called for disruptive persons either heckling speakers or interrupting council proceedings to be removed.
According to the section read by Pilchen, “any person making impertinent derogatory or slanderous remarks or who becomes boisterous while addressing the City Council or while attending the City Council meeting may be removed from the room if the Presiding Officer so directs the sergeant-at-arms and such person may be barred from further audience before the City Council.”
Soto immediately took issue with the word “boisterous” in how it was used in the manual.
“It seems to be a very ambiguous term. What do we exactly do [when] we refer to [people] as ‘boisterous?’” asked Soto.
Pilchen said that, as in case law, the council is given latitude for what it considers “boisterous” to maintain order and to take care of the “people’s business”.
“So certainly people must have the opportunity to speak, but if it crosses the line [by] preventing business from being done, then courts have upheld the right to proceed [with removal],” Pilchen explained.
Soto was not satisfied with the response and began to make a speech.
“I’m still not clear, because public commentary is still public commentary,” he said. “We are not conducting order at that moment. What will constitute that; are we talking about billboards, ads, pom-poms — what exactly do we prevent? Jumping jacks?
“What are we looking at precisely because we have people who come in here, and they come from very specific concerns, and I don’t know if this reflects even the tonality of their voice, the decibels of their voice … what exactly does this constitute it’s not really clear, I think we need to have a listing of exactly what that means.
“Because it’s very, very vague, and it seems to be selective,” Soto continued. “It puts us in a position of selective choosing. Which may or may not, which may alter the mode of freedom of expression uh which is a constitutional basic right for all Americans, all citizens, of this city and outside of the city within the confines of our nation. So, what would that mean, council? Would you be able to provide more specifics to that, it’s still very vague.”
Interim City Manager Nick Kimball intervened and broke it down to what the manual calls for: respect.
“I think we all try to live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others. So I think it’s just really, there is no specific definition because the idea is to be respectful,” Kimball said. He further explained that different bodies have different rules, he offered an example of a recent meeting he attended that did not allow applause.
Soto still was not satisfied and rejected the rule calling it “unacceptable,” “biased,” “very secular,” and said the council members may use the rule to pick and choose who they want to hear, infringing upon people’s freedom of speech.
“So I am not comfortable with this. At all,” Soto said. “I’m in disagreement, I want the record to show, Madame Clerk, I am in disagreement. Currently with this reading of the terms of the decorum in order, Jaime Soto, myself, you can put for the record and I request it at this time a remedy of a more clear, specification of what this entails, what is means, it has to be more clear than this because it’s unacceptable.”
However, this rule is nothing new and was not in need for approval since the current version of the procedural manual is what the council has been following all along. The Procedure Manual was adopted in 1995 and last amended in October 2015, while Soto was in office.
The only reason it is now being included in the city council meeting agenda packet is because there has been a lot of heckling at previous council meetings, according to Mayor Silvia Ballin, so “it needed to be in the agenda packet so we all understand the rules.”
Soto still persisted, saying, “Well you know we have a fair share of hecklers, and even though they are heckling any one of us or myself, they have a right to do so.”
Ballin refuted, “They may have a right to do so, but not to disrupt the meeting, and that’s what we are going to disagree on. So at this time, I’m going to move on, this is not an agenda item, and we’ll move on.”
Ballin, switching gears introduced Ed Intagliata, owner and manager of Cassell’s Music.Intagliata had closed his shop and rushed to get to the meeting on time. His music store- the only one in San Fernando, which has been around since 1947- was recognized by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) as one of the Top 100 Music Stores in the World, and the City of San Fernando was recognizing that achievement.
But Soto was not there for that recognition. He disappeared after mumbling his last words, “Just let the record, for the record, I’m…thank you.” And he was not there for the photo.
It wasn’t until Mayor Ballin abruptly announced the adjournment due to lack of a quorum that Soto’s absence was noticed, leaving some in the audience upset.
“I know what ‘boisterous’ is,” said Transportation and Safety Commissioner Dee Akemon. “‘Boisterous’ is when he [Jaime Soto] and his cronies show up here and disrupt the meeting. And he does it any way he can but he’s not this subtle usually.”
She said a group of people who support Soto sometimes come to the meetings to disrupt it.
“He’s a college professor. For heaven’s sake, he knows what ‘boisterous’ means!” Akemon said. “‘Boisterous’ is like pornography; you might not know it but you’ll know it when you see it.”