Gail Fry | Black Voice News & IE Voice Contributor
At the February 21, 2023, Victorville City Council Meeting, council member Blanca Gomez, left the dais and was addressing the board and the audience at the podium as a member of the public, about issues occurring in closed session when events were put into motion leading to her immediate arrest, and the filing of criminal charges.
On February 24, 2023, the California First Amendment Coalition (FAC) issued a letter to the Victorville City Council, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, and the San Bernardino County District Attorney, demanding that Gomez’s criminal charges be immediately dismissed.
FAC expressed its strong concern regarding the arrest and removal of Gomez. “These events present significant concerns for freedom of speech,” FAC Legal Director David Loy voiced, adding, “The arrest appeared questionable, potentially represents an abuse of power, and threatens the fabric of democracy and open government.”
Events leading up to arrest
The events leading to the Gomez arrest began when she requested to speak as a member of the public during the public comment period.
At the podium addressing the council, Gomez turned to the audience and brought up matters discussed in closed session. She was immediately admonished by Victorville Mayor Debra Jones, who subsequently recessed the meeting for five minutes.
After the recess, Jones addressed the audience explaining that she had interrupted the meeting because Gomez was speaking about closed session items, which is in violation of the law.
While Gomez stood by, Jones explained that the City of Victorville has policies and rules on how to conduct meetings, and Gomez was subject to the same policies and rules that impact any member of the public addressing the council. Jones explained that Gomez could continue making her comments on the condition she would follow the policies and rules.
When Gomez returned to the podium, she attempted to continue her comments, but it appeared that the microphone had been turned off, so Gomez again turned and faced the audience. Jones then voiced that Gomez was out of order. When Gomez did not immediately turn around to face the council, Jones declared Gomez was disrupting the meeting.
Jones said Gomez was refusing to bring herself to order as an audience member, and would be removed from the meeting. “Deputies she is to be removed,” Jones demanded.
Gomez, removed herself as a member of the public, returned to her position and seat as a city council member and began to gather her things. Seconds passed before Jones instructed, “Deputies remove Gomez from the meeting until she agrees to follow the rules.”
Victorville City Attorney Andre De Bortnowsky opined that Gomez, whether a member of the public or as a city council member, was definitely disrupting the meeting. Deputies approached Gomez at her council seat, arrested, and physically removed her from the building.
While the deputies were removing Gomez from the council chambers, Jones assured the audience that, “Ms. Gomez is not being hurt in any measure.”
After Gomez was removed from the council chambers, Jones resumed the city council meeting apologizing to the audience, explaining they run professional meetings and this was not how their meetings were conducted.
Allotted Comment Time
Gomez was arrested for misdemeanors, an alleged violation of Penal Code Section 403, “disturbing a public meeting”, and 602.1, “intentionally interfering with any lawful business carried on by a business open to the public by obstructing or intimidating those attempting to carry on business, and who refuses to leave.”
An example of what would be considered disturbing a public meeting was where a speaker may disrupt a Council meeting by speaking too long, by being overly irrelevant and unduly repetitious, thereby, preventing the council from accomplishing its business in a reasonable manner or conduct that could interfere with the rights of other speakers.
“Because Council Member Gomez remained within her allotted comment time and addressed matters within the city council’s jurisdiction, she was not clearly engaging in any conduct ‘that actually disrupts, disturbs, impedes, or renders infeasible the orderly conduct of the meeting,’ as would be required to justify her removal,” First Amendment Coalition Legal Director David Loy concluded.
Gomez arrested, jailed, and charged
Gomez was arrested and taken to jail. According to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Inmate Locator, as of February 26, Blanca Gomez was released on bail from West Valley Detention Center, her bail was set at $100,000.
However, a review of the San Bernardino County Felony-Misdemeanor-Bail-Schedule-2023, did not reflect any bail related to the violations for which Gomez was charged.
IE Voice and Black Voice News did not attend Gomez’s arraignment, therefore, have no direct knowledge of how the bail was determined.
FAC Legal Director David Loy told this reporter that his initial reaction after viewing the video of the February 21, Victorville City Council Meeting was that it was very troubling because it raises very significant concerns that the mayor was abusing official power to silence a critic.
The people have the right to address their elected officials, speaking within their allotted time, about issues relevant to the city’s official functions, Loy explained affirming as far as he could see, Gomez did not violate any decorum rules, and did absolutely nothing that would justify removing her from the meeting and having her arrested.
Gomez was within her rights, Loy confirmed, explaining that you didn’t hear her being asked to leave at all. “But, I mean, the video speaks for itself,” Loy testified.
“It’s one thing to remove her, which I don’t think removing her was justified, but another thing entirely to arrest her and book her into jail,” Loy shared, explaining, “And I don’t think there was any grounds to arrest her book or jail, and prosecute her.”
“I very strongly request that the district attorney’s office drop these charges immediately.” He said asserting they were completely unfounded. “And, again, as I said, represents a direct threat to freedom of speech and democracy.”
Loy continued, “To be clear, I think this would be true whether this is a city council member or just any member of the public who was thinking the same way,” Loy affirmed.
Free Speech Rights
When asked whether the law enforcement officers should have arrested Gomez based on her free speech rights protected by the constitution, Loy responded law enforcement officers are bound by the same rules as everybody else, and are supposed to follow the constitution.
Loy noted that FAC’s letter was sent to the San Bernardino County Sheriff to let the sheriff know that FAC thinks the arrest was unlawful and without probable cause.