Growing tension between county government and Occupy protestors who want to camp on its front lawn has led to a proposal for an ordinance regulating public assembly on county properties.
Supervisor Jimmy Smith advanced the proposal at the Jan. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting, saying Occupy protests on the front lawn of the County Administrative Building had “gotten out of hand.”
The protest encampment had “occupied” the lawn area until county and city police agencies cleared it, making several arrests. A fence now encloses the lawn to prevent re-establishment of the protest camp.
Smith asked other supervisors to consider directing staff to work on an ordinance defining how county property can be used for public assembly.
Supervisor Clif Clendenen agreed with Smith’s assessment and he asked protestors not to consider the county as a target. “I would ask the Occupy folks to really help us think of a creative solution to what I see as the real target,” he said. “And our county government, really, has been victimized as much as anyone.”
Homeowners who saw their property values decline pay less taxes accordingly, Clendenen continued, which means less revenue for county services. “The target of that is not local government — we’re the recipient of that wave,” he said.
But during public comment, protester Kim Starr challenged that and told supervisors the county is an appropriate target of protest. “None of you have stopped the invasion of the highway expansions though Richardson Grove or Jedidiah Smith State Park into this county, you haven’t protected local people from dying from exposure and you’ve only sanctioned civil rights violations,” she said.
Starr added, “Take down the disgusting fences, stop lying by saying that you respect protest — you’ve been part of the conspiracy to intimidate people and stifle the Occupy Wall Street movement in Eureka.”
Occupy protester Janelle Egger warned against taking restrictions too far. “First amendment rights have been stomped on — I’m sorry, it’s true, you need to recognize that,” she said. Egger explained that around-the-clock protests can’t happen without shelter provisions.
“I will not go out there in the middle of the night without a tent when it’s raining,” she said.
Supervisor Mark Lovelace asked that a public workshop be held before work on an ordinance begins. But he also said that Occupy encampments go beyond mere use of public space because they prevent use by others.
Using the Gay Pride Festival as an example, Lovelace said advocacy groups regularly get permits to use municipal properties and if the Occupy protests are exempt, “We are now conferring special rights — and that’s a concern to me.”
Supervisors unanimously supported having staff work on an ordinance and bring it back for review. Lovelace’s workshop proposal didn’t gain support from other supervisors but they did support his follow-up motion to have the county administrative officer draw in a variety of input, ranging from police agencies to the protesters.
There was more commentary on the Occupy-related issues during the afternoon public comment session, as a man who identified himself as a former county deputy public defender said he’d been injured in the camp-clearing police action and threatened to sue the county.
But he offered to settle “without a great deal of media attention” for $25,000.
Other Occupy protesters addressed reports of harassment of county employees and courthouse visitors. They acknowledged that their encampment had attracted mentally ill and drug-addicted protesters whose behavior was problematic.
“It’s a failure of Occupy Eureka but it’s also a failure of the entire community,” one protester told supervisors. “We’re going to need a lot more support to help solve that problem.”