July 18, 2019
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RP City Council, not business as usual

By: Lanny Lowery
June 28, 2019

Fifteen minutes prior to the Rohnert Park City Council meeting on Tue., June 25, the city hall lobby filled with protestors holding signs supporting Branch Wroth and his family, calling for police oversight and accusing RP safety officers of brutality.  When the meeting began, the council room saw a full house containing more than three dozen protestors, a five member elder abuse committee and a handful of other spectators.

The audience, quiet and respectful as Mayor Gina Belforte opened the meeting, stood to honor the pledge.  Then a slow build up of protest began as the council proceeded with business.

The mayor read a declaration proclaiming June as Elder Abuse Awareness Month.  As the proclamation was delivered, protestors randomly started to hold up their signs.  Belforte stated that 530 flags flown would represent 530 reported cases of elder abuse.  More signs lifted and snickering and some hissing permeated council chambers as the mayor advised people to contact RP public safety to report cases of elder abuse.  Grumblings began a slow crescendo as committee members of elder care were recognized and during a photo shoot with the council members protestors spoke to each other about their concerns.

The council moved on to Department Head Briefings as Public Safety Director Timothy Mattos reported about a new policy, “‘Safe and Sane’ Fireworks or Risk Fines of $1,000.  He stated that the city had reduced the number of days for fireworks.  (Last reported, the dates occur between June 30 and July 4.)  The city has used a variety of channels to get the word out to the public, including requiring two postings on each firework’s sales building.

On May 15, the council voted 5-0 to allow local law enforcement to ticket and fine people who permit any use of fireworks on their property not deemed “safe and sane.”  Sparklers, ground fountains and non-aerial spinners are among the list of state-approved fireworks.  These fireworks must display a State of California State Fire Marshall Registered Fireworks seal.

Mattos went on to say that sector based deployment will be utilized as the safety department is going all out to have zero tolerance for illegal fireworks.  His comments prompted some hissing in the audience.  As the council discussed enforcement, many protestors held up signs.

Public comment followed.  One person wondered how the new fireworks ordinance would be enforced and how police would determine what property is responsible.  Another person complimented Chief Mattos and his staff and the city staff for the ordinance.

On the tail of the elder abuse and fireworks concerns, public comment moved to focus on the Branch Wroth tragedy.  Six days after the Wroth family was given the largest award, $4m, in a civil rights case against a Sonoma County law enforcement agency in 25 years, protestors came to comment to the city council.

Included in the decision was the finding that Rohnert Park failed to train its officers to avoid suffocating people when restraining them.   A unanimous verdict found that Rohnert Park’s training problems were a “moving force” behind Wroth’s death.

The city has filed a motion to ask the judge to overturn the verdict, contending that the Wroth’s claims about inadequate training were invalid.

Marni Wroth, mother of Branch Wroth, addressed the council to remind them of the need for a police oversight committee, one that had been recommended by the Civil Rights Commission.

Susan Lamont urged the council to make a change: “Very few people have the opportunity to make change.  You have the power.  You can train your law enforcement correctly and hold them accountable when they don’t do things right.”

Laura Gonzales and Gail Symonds re-enforced the need for training, both for restraint and first aid.  Symonds encouraged the hiring of “young men who have empathy.”

Jerry Street summarized the need for an oversight committee:  “The best solution is to develop a civilian oversight committee,” perhaps through the county.  When this exercise of civil discourse ended, most of the audience departed.  Left on one of the chairs, a sign announced:  “The blood of Branch Wroth is on your hands, community oversight law enforcement now!”

The meeting moved rapidly from this point as the council approved all eleven items on the consent agenda 4-0 (Pam Stafford was absent.)  Reports and communications were few and brief.  Two matters for future agendas were suggested:  a presentation about homelessness and what the city can do about it (which is scheduled for a July 23 presentation) and an update on the lacrosse field.

Not a business as usual meeting, the Branch Wroth protest cast a shadow over the bright summer evening.  All of the safety issues, fireworks and elder abuse and police treatment of the public left a serious and sober tone in the council chambers.