Public participation at Fullerton City Council Meetings has proven difficult due to restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendance at meetings has been limited, and therefore many members of the public have chosen to utilize the City’s eComment and email options to submit public comments.
At the December 15 Council meeting, several residents submitted both eComments and emails regarding the killing of Hector Hernandez by a Fullerton police officer this past May. However, contrary to the statement on the posted agenda that all eComments and emails would be read aloud during the meeting, this did not happen.
This story was first reported on by Vern Nelson on the Orange Juice Blog.
Here is the relevant portion of the cover letter posted with the December 15 agenda:
“Many people sent public comments about Hector Hernandez, yet only one person’s comment was read at tonight’s meeting. We were silenced,” Fullerton resident Mike Rodriguez told the Observer. “The agenda specifically states how to send public comments, but the City Clerk chose not to read them.”
When asked about this, Fullerton City Clerk Lucinda Williams told the Observer, “It appears staff inadvertently attached the incorrect coversheet explaining the eComment process to last night’s agenda. I, unfortunately, did not notice the error before the meeting so we could make accommodations for the emailed comments last night.”
Williams told the Observer that City Council is following the protocols allowed by the Brown Act with modification temporarily allowed by the Governor’s Executive Orders for government meetings during COVID-19.
Public Participation Problems During COVID-19
City Council policy has been to not have the City Clerk read emails sent by the public aloud, although eComments are sometimes read aloud, at the discretion of the Mayor. EComments are limited to 500 characters. Often, when there are many eComments on a single item, the Mayor will ask the City Clerk to give a tally or summary of those for or against a certain agenda item. This was a policy adopted by the previous Mayor, Jennifer Fitzgerald, and continued by Bruce Whitaker at the December 15 meeting.
This has created a situation in which those who choose not to attend in-person City Council meetings (for public health reasons during a pandemic), may not have their comments heard during meetings—at the discretion of the Mayor and Council—the very elected officials whom the public may be commenting about or criticizing. This creates the perception that those in power get to pick and choose whose voices get heard, an inherently anti-democratic process.
When asked about the eComment and email process, newly-elected Councilmember Fred Jung told the Observer in a recent interview, “We as Councilmembers can make sure the City Clerk reads every one. I recognize that under the previous Council, they just wanted to move the process along so they’d ask the City Clerk to summarize the eComments. It’s really hard to summarize all those e-mails and eComments. So, a lot of it just slips through the cracks. So, I think we can avoid that by saying, ‘Let’s read every one.’”
During in-person public comments at the December 15 Council Meeting, Fullerton resident Tanya McCrory said, “My husband and I were here at the last meeting and afterwards several of our friends called to say that they had written eComments that were not read. During this time of COVID, it’s especially important that the eComments are handled well. I know our City Clerk does the best she can, but I was told that comments were completely omitted or very heavily edited. And it gets a little tricky if somebody is trying to participate in their local democracy and their voice is not being heard, and they can’t come to Council. So, I ask that you come up with some kind of plan where if people are taking the time to write an email to voice a concern that it is heard.”
After listening to public comments, Mayor Whitaker said, “Anyone who takes the time and effort to communicate with this Council, you will be heard. That’s something that I feel is very important.” However, a bit later in the meeting, he requested that the City Clerk give a summary of eComments for an agenda item regarding cannabis.
Councilmember Ahmad Zahra asked that staff prepare a report on technical options for public comments. “It looks like we need to improve our public comments,” Zahra said.
Suggestions to Improve Participation
Fullerton resident Jane Reifer, who has written articles for the Observer suggesting best practices for public comments, wrote the following email, which was not read aloud at the meeting:
The ability for Fullerton residents to participate in local decision-making is becoming more difficult with COVID- 19 restrictions. Any issue that profoundly affects someone’ s personal or business life, is an issue that they, the public, should have an opportunity to participate in. People want to make their case in person because they feel that issues that are not voiced aloud during an actual Council or commission meeting will not get the most attention.
First I want to let you know how upset I am that my eComments were not read at the last Council meeting. There is no excuse for this. It’ s become very difficult to give public opinion at the numerous city committees and commissions, which each have chosen unique ways to address public participation, with little consistency. If a member of the public is used to participating one way, it can come as a surprise that a different committee has opposite rules for their meetings, resulting in a missed opportunity to participate.
Many major decisions are being made without the ability for the public’s participation. For example, at an October 14 Planning Commission public hearing, a developer had 40 minutes during public comment to make their case, while the public’s well -researched three submitted emails were neither read nor summarized, as promised on the agenda. A recent survey of Orange County showed that the city with the best participation methods seems to be Costa Mesa, which combines a Zoom webinar, Granicus (the municipal electronic information system) and YouTube for a meeting in which you can see the council and staff on a grid and call in by phone to comment. As the Council discontinues meeting in-person, effective virtual methods, such as those suggested below, are essential.
Proposed Best Practices
Consistent protocol: The City should develop a consistent protocol for best practices for the Council and commissions to have to have the same, reliable, method for public participation. The current practices are inconsistent across commissions, and sometimes even within a commission. If a consistent protocol can’ t be developed, there should at least be a chart explaining the different methods.
Calendar links and charts: Meetings and calendars should clearly indicate how the public can participate, in English, Spanish, closed -caption, and any other necessary languages. This information should also be distributed in flyers or in materials that go out to residents who may not have computers. Water bills are a good method, but they are bi- monthly, and do not always go out to renters.
Phone access: Whether the Council and commissions meet in person or not, there should be phone access for people to submit comments, especially for those without smartphones or computers, or when there’ s a technology glitch. (We can call this the Maureen Milton Method.)
Broadcast or livestream: There can be quite a learning curve for the public to know how to access the livestream, as each commission is different. The method should be clear, and provided well in advance, so participants don’ t lose their opportunity to watch and/or comment. There should be instructions as to when to expect the video or livestream, which can be confusing.
Names and titles: These should be broadcast so you can see the councilmembers or commission members, and it would be helpful if names and staff titles can be available to know who is speaking and if they are speaking in an official capacity.
EComments: These should be more than 500 characters and should contain a separate field to insert your name, rather than having to set up an account. They should be available in Spanish, read out loud at Council and commission meetings with the person’ s name. There needs to be someone verifying that each item has an eComment attached to it. For example, many Library Board of Trustee agenda items are missing a corresponding eComment. Include a confirmation that the eComment will be read and entered into the official record, and a final confirmation when it actually happens. It’ s hard to make comments in real time, and it would be helpful to give some kind of countdown so people would know that the eComment period is about to close. City Council specific: Few people know that their public comments are sometimes addressed immediately after they are made and they leave without the benefit of hearing the feedback that they asked for, so this should be announced. Since meetings will now be virtual, there also needs to be an announcement for the public as to how to pull consent calendar items for discussion. We also need to address the ability of the public to show a photo or a chart during their public comment.
The public is always concerned that their points may not be made as powerfully if they submit a written comment rather than speaking directly to Councilmembers. This becomes especially important if a resident’s business, home, or something they care about strongly is “on the line.” Civic issues can have profound effects on the public, occasionally even at the level of life and death, and, especially during a pandemic. The public deserves to have its say. I hope new systems can be implemented soon.
Public Comments Regarding the Death of Hector Hernandez
A protest had been organized for the December 15 Council meeting regarding the FPD killing of Hector Hernandez. Some members of the public showed up to the protest with signs, and others who submitted emails were expecting to have them read aloud. They were not.
In lieu of a public reading, here are the emails submitted to City Council regarding the killing of Hector Hernandez by a Fullerton police officer that were not read. These were posted on the city of Fullerton’s web site on December 18:
Hi my name is Bulmaro Vicente, and I am a resident of Santa Ana. I am here to support and join the family of Hector Hernandez in demanding that Officer Ferrell be dismissed and charged for the murder of Hector Hernandez. Police officers should be held accountable when they unjustly use lethal force to kill individuals. Hector’s family deserves justice, accountability, and transparency!
I am the Reverend Jason Cook and I am honored to be part of the Fullerton community as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fullerton. I have become aware that the eyes of many are on Fullerton right now to see how our community will respond to the tragic shooting death of Hector Hernandez by Officer Jonathan Ferrell. While I cannot begin to know every detail of what occurred that night, I, like so many, have watched in horror as a man who was on the ground and holding a knife, not a gun, was shot. In an era in which concerned Americans are paying close attention to whether unnecessary force is being used in police encounters, it is essential that Fullerton does the morally right thing in proceeding with this case to the fullest extent toward where the evidence points. Was the loss of yet another human life absolutely necessary is this situation? Was lethal force the best and only option in these circumstances? With compassion to the officers and citizens involved, I ask simply that justice be done. I am grateful to the officers who protect and serve this community, and I am grateful to all leaders in this community who make sure that everyone—police officer or community leader or parish minister like me—is held to full accountability for our actions when we err. If wrong is done, there must be accountability. Rest in peace, Hector Hernandez.
—Rev. Jason Cook, Minister Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fullerton
To the City Council, I respectfully urge the City to take action regarding the disturbing case of lethal force this week [Editor’s note: The killing took place May 27]. Listen to the family and neighborhood. The public deserves accountability and transparency of the programs that we pay taxes for. It is clear that this tragedy hurts us all, and we need action.
—Ada F. Briceño, Chairwoman, Democratic Party of Orange County
[Editor’s Note: Two other letters were submitted with nearly identical language to the one by Briceño, by Paige Ortiz and MT]
I am urging the city of Fullerton to take action regarding a disturbing case of lethal force that occurred in Fullerton this week. I urge the Council to listen to the family and members of the neighborhood, and to immediately take actions in accordance with their requests. The public deserves accountability and transparency of the programs that we pay taxes for. This tragedy hurts us all, and we need the Council to show us that they take these matters seriously. Their actions or inactions show us how they feel about our community.
My name is Emily Jackson and I am a resident of Fullerton. I am making this comment to call for police transparency and full accountability in the brutal murder of Hector Hernandez by Fullerton police officers. Hernandez’ s friends and family deserve justice, and we all deserve accountability.
—Emily Jackson, MD
What happened on May 27 is not unlike what happens other nights. But tonight, people in your city are going to ask, “What can our City Council do to make sure that this does not happen again?” It will not be the first time this question has been asked of a city council—and until there is recognition that there is something to prevent “it” in the first place, then we will continue to see the types of incidents that happened on May 27. Or July 5. Serving the public means to be the artist of de-escalation. Many frontline providers become performers of this strategy—classroom teachers, nurses, emergency professionals, and even food workers learn to bring the energy lower so that way issues can safely resolve. Any workforce who deals with the public needs to have the desire to de-escalate and provide safety to the community. Somehow, I don’ t think that this community feels safer after May 27. I hope City Council will encourage their policing structures to become more open to long-term changes so that way your workforce, the police department, can be more effective at their jobs without blood in the street.
I’m writing this message with the hopes that my voice will not be ignored. My name is Rachel Paredes, I’m a 19-year-old Latina living in Fullerton, and I am devastated by the gruesome act of police brutality that occurred at Hector Hernandez’s home in May. He was unnecessarily murdered while on his back with his hands raised, and his murderer, FPD Officer Jonathan Ferrell, continues to work despite his gross act of injustice. I come to wonder why FPD Officers aren’t’ trained well enough to do their jobs correctly, and de-escalate situations without using excessive force, yet get nearly 50% of our city budget. I also wonder why the FPD only gets TWO DAYS of crisis intervention training, and are *supposedly* receiving training on implicit bias. It seems as though their training should be a bit more thorough, no? My message to the Council is simple—hold your PD accountable. My family contributes to this City’ s revenues; we pay for the police department to do its job, which means we inevitably pay for them to f*#& up. Fix it. Hold Officer Jonathan Ferrell accountable.
And to our Mayor, Mr. Whitaker, I hope that you are taking COVID-19 seriously, and are wearing a mask. I hope everyone on the Council is wearing one, too. It is a patriotic duty, not a hinderance to your individual freedoms. I’m sad I couldn’t be here in person, as I would’ve loved to speak about these comments physically, but I have finals to take for my courses.
Written and sent with the hopes that my voice will not be ignored,
To the City Council, I respectfully urge the City to take action regarding the police-caused death of Hector Hernandez. Listen to the family and neighborhood, and take the actions they are calling for. We deserve accountability and transparency. It is clear that this tragedy hurts us all, and we need action.
I urge the city of Fullerton to take action regarding the disturbing case of lethal force this week. The Council should listen to the family and neighborhood, and take action immediately. The public deserves accountability and transparency in all the services that we pay taxes for, including public safety. This tragedy hurts us all, and we need action.
What happened to Hector Hernandez on May 27 was a travesty, and now he has two young sons who are left to fend for themselves without their father. As a father, I can only imagine what my kids would feel if I was taken from this world the way that Hector’s life was taken. Officer Jonathan Ferrell sicced his K- 9 on a man whose hands were up in his own front yard, then as Hector was on the ground, Ferrell ran up and shot him, execution style. Therefore, neighbors, family, and members of the Fullerton community at large are demanding that you dismiss Officer Ferrell from the Fullerton Police Department so that he can be brought up on murder charges. Many of Hector’ s neighbors who witnessed the shooting stated that Officer Ferrell did not have to escalate the situation the way that he did, and that his actions are what led to the shooting. I am also appalled that Officer Ferrell is still on active duty while this investigation is ongoing.
In my opinion, the City Council needs to examine a few other issues concerning law enforcement in our city as well. First of all, I know that there is a third-party overseeing cases of police violence such as this one, but I feel that a civilian oversight committee can be more fruitful. Fullerton residents pay the taxes that fund the police department, so Fullerton residents should oversee how money is being spent and evaluate officer performance. Just as many other public agencies have civilian boards and oversight, so should police departments.
Which leads me to my next point. Why does such a huge chunk of the City budget go towards law enforcement in Fullerton? In many cases, first responders may be much more equipped to handle the crises in our communities, such as mental health practitioners, homeless advocates, and therapists who specialize in domestic violence. I understand the difficult situations that officers have to face, but as armed government agents of the law, the police should be the last resort in many crisis situations. We need to find better ways to improve the public health of our communities. Let’s hire more health care workers and invest in more youth programming so that we can take a more preventative approach to crime and less of an emphasis on discipline and punishment. We don’ t need to burden the police with so many non-violent situations. Let’s think smarter about this.
—Mike Rodriguez, Fullerton resident
My name is Santiago Sanchez. I am emailing today to demand justice for the murder of Hector Hernandez. Hector Hernandez should be alive today. Hector was a real man who was honest, took care of his kids, and who would give his shirt off his back. He was a leader in our community. He was a hard worker at the Fullerton U-Haul as a lead mechanic. He grew up in Fullerton and sadly, was killed by Fullerton Police Officer Ferrell, a person who was supposed to protect and serve. I demand that Officer Ferrell be dismissed and charged for the murder of Hector Hernandez. The officer should be charged and fully prosecuted of the law for murder.
My name is Anne Sim. I am urging the Fullerton City Council to take action regarding the disturbing use of lethal force by the Fullerton Police. I am calling on the Council to listen to the family and neighborhood, and immediately take actions that they are calling for. The people of Fullerton deserve a police department that is accountable and transparent. Let’ s stop tragedies like the one experienced from happening again. This tragedy hurts us all, and we need action now.
A few members of the public spoke in-person at the December 15 Council meeting regarding the death of Hector Hernandez.
Bill Brown, a friend and neighbor of Hernandez, who has organized recent protests in front of the Fullerton Police Station regarding the killing, questioned the accuracy of the Critical Incident Video released by the FPD following the incident.
“They [FPD] are required by law to release all relevant evidence and they didn’t release all the relevant evidence,” Brown said. “They just selectively released what’s going to help them for now, is what it looks like.”
Kelly Williams, a neighbor and friend of Hernandez who was a witness to the shooting, quoted excerpts from official FPD policies that, she feels, were not followed that night:
“ • Require a warning before shooting. The website states bold and clear that officers are required to make reasonable efforts to identify themselves and to war that deadly force may be used where or when feasible. This did not happen the night of the 27th.
• Require a de-escalation. Officers are trained to de-escalate situations and Fullerton Police Department policy calls for de-escalation techniques to be used when appropriate. Officers receive training that’s mandated every two years by POST [Peace Officer Standards and Training]. This did not take place that night of May 27.
• Exhaust all alternatives before shooting. Officers should evaluate the use of other reasonably available resources and techniques when determining whether to use deadly force.”
“Hector’s life matters, and now his two sons do not have a father,” Williams said.
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