CSAC Bulletin Article

Continuing to Combat Disruptive Behavior During Public Meetings

November 30, 2023

Remote participation options for public meetings have been a breakthrough in facilitating public engagement in local governing boards. For many working parents, people with disabilities, or simply those whose lives make it difficult to carve out the time to attend a meeting in person, remote participation in public meetings has allowed them to engage in their community decisions for the first time. However, the tool has been challenged by some alarming trends.  

Like many local agencies across the state and around the country, California counties continue to experience disruptive behavior by members of the public during public meetings, both in-person and virtually. Recently, these have included what appear to be coordinated efforts to intentionally disrupt virtual public comment periods with hate speech and harassment, an unfortunate trend sometimes referred to as “Zoombombing.” Consequentially, some local governments have decided to cease allowing remote public comments.

These behaviors not only disrupt the proceedings of the day, but undermine the promise of the Brown Act, disrupting the ability of members of the public to participate in the conduct of the public’s business safely and productively. To say that these types of behaviors have been disruptive to the normal conduct of county business is an understatement; they are stressful, demoralizing, and in some cases, frightening for their targets.

CSAC Co-Sponsored Legislation Is Here to Help

Effective January 1, 2023, SB 1100 (Chapter 171, Statutes of 2022), authored by Senator Cortese, authorizes the presiding member of a legislative body conducting a meeting, or their designee, to remove an individual for actually disrupting the meeting if they continue disrupting the meeting after being warned about their behavior, and defines “disrupting” for these purposes. This measure assists local agencies in dealing with the rising hostility and intimidation occurring during public meetings and ensures the efficient and effective conduct of the public’s business. At the same time, the new law safeguards the public’s right to address its elected leaders in public meetings under reasonable conduct requirements.

Tools for Local Governments to Manage Public Meetings

While Zoombombing can be difficult to address in the moment, there are tools you can use to be prepared.

First, it can help to have a plan. It won’t solve every problem, but having an agreed-upon plan on how to address hate speech in the moment will help boards respond to the incidents more efficiently and help reduce disruptions to the official business.

It’s important to know the abilities of the remote participation software used for your meetings. Many already come equipped with the options to remove or mute attendees, control when a user can share their screen, or include the ability to temporarily pause remote participation, rather than eliminate it entirely during a meeting.

Next month, CSAC’s William “Bill” Chiat Institute for excellence in county government will conduct a course on how to manage conflict and hostility. The course will cover constructive approaches to managing conflict, whether it’s in a public meeting or one-on-one.

Finally, the Anti-Defamation League is tracking harassment at local public meetings and developed a toolkit for public officials to respond to extremist disruptions in these settings. The toolkit includes guidance and best practices to prepare for and guard against disruptions during meetings, as well as how to strategically respond in the moment. This toolkit may aid the existing practices and efforts of counties to combat harassment and hate speech directed at county officials and the public. It also includes links to symbols, phrases, and codes of hate groups to help public officials identify signs of extremist activities.

CSAC will continue to share resources to aid counties in conducting meetings in a way that is inclusive, respectful, and productive.

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