First Amendment Coalition urges the San Bernardino County District Attorney to immediately drop criminal charges brought against Victorville City Council Member Blanca Gomez 

Victorville City Council Member Blanca Gomez

Gail Fry

Contributor

On February 21, 2023, Victorville City Council Member Blanca Gomez requested to speak during public comments as a member of the public, Gomez, addressing the council and the audience regarding a subject discussed in closed session, was admonished by the mayor followed by a series of events leading to her arrest, removal from the meeting, incarceration, and filing of criminal charges.    

Three days later, on February 24, 2023, according to a letter obtained by The San Bernardino American News, the California First Amendment Coalition (FAC) released a letter to the Victorville City Council, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, urging the district attorney to immediately drop the criminal charges.  

“By copy of this letter to the San Bernardino County District Attorney, I am asking that the charges against her be dismissed immediately,” the letter from the California First Amendment Coalition demanded.  

“Abuse of such power threatens the fabric of democracy and open government,” Loy protested.  In an interview with The San Bernardino American News, Loy charged, “That’s a direct assault on freedom of speech, democracy and open government.”

“There are also serious questions whether it was lawful to arrest Council Member Gomez on the charges for which she was booked,” Loy voiced, adding that Penal Code section 403 requires that a person “willfully disturbs or breaks up” a lawful meeting.

The series of events, which ended in Gomez’ arrest on February 21, started when Gomez asked to speak, as a member of the public, during the public comment period.  Gomez was at the podium when she turned to the audience and pointed to her cell phone, admonished by Mayor Debra Jones, Gomez turned to face the council pointing her finger at a council member Elizabeth Becerra while stating, “during closed session.”  

Victorville Mayor Debra Jones instructed staff to mute the microphone while Becerra raised her portable device to cover her face.  Then Mayor Jones announced the meeting would be recessed for five minutes.  

Video here- Blanca start

When the meeting was reconvened following the recess, Jones informed the audience that the meeting was interrupted because Gomez’s comments about closed session were in violation of the law.   

As Gomez stood by and it appeared Becerra recorded, Jones advised that the City of Victorville has rules and policies and rules that everyone needs to follow when addressing the council, including Gomez and that Gomez would be allowed to continue with her comments subject to her adherence to its rules and policies.   

Returning to the podium to speak, Gomez uttered a few words and realizing the mike was muted, Gomez turned to face the audience and continued speaking.  Jones declared Gomez was out of order.  When Gomez failed to quickly face the council, Jones announced Gomez had disrupted the meeting.  

Jones then concluded that Gomez had refused to return to order as a member of the public, and explained Gomez was to be removed from the meeting.  “Deputies she is to be removed,” Jones exclaimed.    

Gomez, a member of the public, walked behind the dais, retaking her position and seat as a member of the city council, and assembling her belongings.  Seconds went by when Jones instructed, “Deputies remove Gomez from the meeting until she agrees to follow the rules.”  

Victorville City Attorney Andre De Bortnowsky then verbally issued an opinion that Gomez, either as a member of the public or as a city council member, had definitely disrupted the meeting.  Deputies were then seen approaching Gomez and arresting her, and accompanying her from the building.   

Video here – Gomez arrest

During the time deputies were removing Gomez from Victorville City Hall, Jones assured the audience, “Ms. Gomez is not being hurt in any measure.”  Following Gomez’ removal from the city hall, Jones reopened the city council meeting, apologized to the audience members, explaining that this was not how their meetings were conducted, that their meetings are conducted in a professional manner.  

Video here – Focus Jones

The San Bernardino County District Attorney filed misdemeanor charges against Gomez for allegedly violating Penal Code Section 403, disturbing a public meeting, and 602.1 for allegedly for refusing to leave after intentionally interfering with lawful business being conducted by a business open to the public by obstructing or intimidating those individuals who were attempting to conduct business.  

As an example of what would be considered disrupting a public meeting, where a speaker exceeds their time limit, or is overly irrelevant and unduly repetitious, to the point where it prevented the council from accomplishing its business in a reasonable manner or where the conduct interfered with the rights of other speakers.  Source is Renne Public Law Group, more information can be viewed at:  https://rennepubliclawgroup.com/dealing-with-disruptions-at-public-meetings-legal-and-practical-considerations/ 

First Amendment Coalition Legal Director David Loy determined that Council Member Gomez was within her allotted time to speak, was addressing matters within the jurisdiction of the city council, and her conduct was not ‘that actually disrupts, disturbs, impedes, or renders infeasible the orderly conduct of the meeting,’ as required to provide a legal basis to arrest, and remove her from the meeting.  

According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Inmate Locator, Blanca Gomez was arrested, taken to West Valley Detention Center where she was bailed out on $100,000 bail on Sunday, February 26.  

During her incarceration, anyone attempting to locate Blanca Gomez by looking her up by her name, and date of birth, were unsuccessful.  To locate Blanca Gomez, her booking number was required.  

The San Bernardino American News has no direct knowledge of how Gomez’ $100,000 bail was determined having not attended Gomez’ arraignment, however, a review of the San Bernardino County Felony-Misdemeanor-Bail-Schedule-2023, found no information on the bail amount required for the criminal charges Gomez faced.  

FAC Legal Director David Loy told The San Bernardino American New that free speech and open government require the people have the right to address their elected officials on issues within their jurisdiction, and speak within their allotted time. 

“She never got anywhere close to the time on it,” Loy objected, declaring, “She was essentially interrupted twice and shut down because of alleged decorum violations, and I can’t see that she violated any decorum rules to the house or genuinely disrupted the meeting, other than by saying things that the mayor didn’t like or fair on the face the audience, which the mayor apparently didn’t like.”

“But, you know, there’s nothing I could see in the city’s decorum rules, which prohibits that,” Loy observed explaining there was nothing that would justify removing or arresting her while she stays within her time limit, which she clearly was speaking about matters that are germane to the city’s official functions, but she clearly was, you know, she was well within her rights.”  

“To be clear, I think this would be true whether this is a city council member or just any member of the public,” Loy confirmed. 

“And I don’t see any basis to have been arrested, much less prosecuted, charged with a crime, and incarcerated,” Loy concluded, testifying, “But I mean, the video speaks for itself.”  

Loy shared that what he saw on the video of the February 21, Victorville City Council Meeting was very troubling because it raises very significant concerns that the mayor was abusing official power to silence a critic.

“I very strongly request that the district attorney’s office dropped these charges immediately,” Loy protested.  

In response to The San Bernardino American New regarding law enforcement officers’ responsibility to follow the constitution, Loy explained law enforcement is subject to the same rules as other citizens, and are to follow the constitution.  

Loy shared that FAC’s letter was directed to the San Bernardino County Sheriff to inform the sheriff of FAC’s opinion that the arrest was unlawful and without probable cause.

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