Gomez Arrested Again After Another Victorville City Contretemps

Victorville Councilwoman Blanca Gomez is in the custody of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, and it appears she will likely remain so until the resumption of her trial on public disturbance and related charges growing out of two 2021 incidents. Her current incarceration began with her arrest on Tuesday night over an event and circumstances not unlike those leading to one of her previous arrests.
As previously, the issues in which Gomez finds herself entangled straddle, or stand on, the border dividing free speech and political expression from what the San Bernardino County establishment considers a seditious violation of civil order.Gomez was arrested by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies as she was seated at her place on the council dais following what had been her thwarted attempt to address the council and the public from the microphoned podium used by the public to participate in public meetings held within Victorville’s council meeting chamber. During the portion of Tuesday night’s meeting reserved for public comment, Gomez informed Mayor Debra Jones that she wanted to speak, and Jones directed her to the rostrum. Once there, Gomez twirled around and made reference to the portable video camera she was using to livestream the proceedings, instructing those watching the meeting on that medium about a button that needed to be pushed before she set the device down on the top of the lectern, which prompted Jones to say, “Ms. Gomez, you will speak solely to the full of the council.”
Gomez then began, “It’s nice to know that during closed session…”
Jones interjected, apparently addressing those to whom Gomez was livestreaming, “Ms. Gomez may not speak to you… Ms Gomez may not speak to closed session…”
Gomez spoke over Jones at that point, saying “It’s a public comment. I’m allowed to speak. Freedom of speech. Are you interrupting me, because…”
Jones then spoke over Gomez, saying, “Yes, ma’am, I am. You may not speak to close session…”
Gomez then blurted over Jones “Two minutes and 43 seconds…,” an apparent reference to how much of her three-minute speaking time she had left.
Jones said, “Madam Clerk will you kindly mute the mic so that the chair can speak to this.”
With the podium microphone turned off, Gomez turned her back to both the podium and the council and began addressing the public in the gallery. Jones then said that the council was going to recess for five minutes.
Five minutes and 43 seconds later, the open session of the meeting resumed, it having apparently been determined that Gomez’s reference to the closed session was not to the content of its deliberations. The video began with Jones stating that the meeting was to continue, followed by Jones referring to Gomez, who was gesturing toward Jones and speaking to her off mic, as “the audience member.” Jones said, “The audience member will be silent this moment.” Jones then lectured Gomez and the audience, stating that as the presiding officer she had to “enforce our rules and policies and make sure that decorum is followed in our meetings so that we can have a productive meeting, a meaningful meeting and carry out the business of the city. The reason previously that I called the audience member to order was that it appeared the audience member was speaking as a council member and was endeavoring into subjects related to closed session, which is a violation of the law to disclose. We have very strict policies that we must follow in terms of confidentiality, and that’s for the protection of our city, our community and, most certainly, the council. So, my apologies to this audience for the ramblings that have gone on during the recess, but at this time Ms. Gomez is going to be permitted to continue with her public comment, provided that she follows the rules of decorum as is required by any member of the audience. If not, she will be warned to bring herself to order. With that said, Ms. Gomez, please approach the podium and continue with your public comments.”
Gomez moved toward the podium, while Councilwoman Liz Becerra, at her place on the dais, used her laptop camera to video Gomez as she stepped up to the podium.
Gomez started, “As I was saying, the important thing that happened at the closed session was not that I was speaking about an item, because I am not speaking about an item. I’m speaking of what occurred, the targeting, and that you guys need to co-conspire against what I’m doing there. So, if I’m bringing a mic, I’m not recording you. I’m letting you guys know that this is required because I get shut off all the time. This has gone on for years since I was elected and that’s what happens. The only reason you ever see Liz Becerra recording is she wants to co-conspire with her colleague [San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department] Captain John Wickum [who serves in the capacity of Victorville police chief] to do things I already have in a criminal lawsuit. That’s why I invite all of you,” Gomez said, turning around to gesture to the audience in the gallery, “to…”
”The audience member will speak to the full of the council,” Jones broke in. “You will bring yourself to order. You are admonished to follow the rules.”
Turning around to face Jones, Gomez said, “I can speak to the people…”
“You will follow the rules of decorum or you will be removed,” Jones spoke over Gomez.
“I can speak to whoever I want,” Gomez said. “The First Amendment gives me the right as a public member to say what I want to say.”
“Ms. Gomez,” Jones said, speaking over Gomez, “The chair is admonishing you that if you continue, because it is the right…” At that point, as Gomez gestured toward the dais, Jones said, “Madame Clerk, mute the mic and stop the clock.” Jones, addressing the audience in the gallery, said, “To the audience: Audience members are required to follow policies and procedures…”’
Gomez turned to herself face the audience and began to speak to them, her utterances inaudible on the video.
“To the extent the audience member is disrupting this meeting, if she continues to disrupt, she will be removed from this meeting,” Jones said. “Ms. Gomez will step up to the mic and continue. Her time, Madam Clerk; put the mic back on.”
Gomez was yet addressing the gallery.
“Alright, at this point the audience member is refusing to bring herself to order and she will be removed from this meeting as an audience member,” Jones said. “She is to be removed. Deputies, she is to be removed.”
Almost simultaneously, Gomez concluded her monologue with the audience and walked to the end of the dais and then behind it to take her seat.
As two sheriff’s deputies loomed into visibility on the video of the meeting, Jones, noting that Gomez had returned to behind the dais, asked City Attorney Andre de Bortnowsky, “Does that change the scenario?” Jones’ apparent meaning with the question was whether her call to have Gomez removed from the meeting still had authority.
“She has disrupted the meeting and she continues to disrupt the meeting,” de Bortnowsky said. “She should definitely be removed.”
“Deputies, remove Ms. Gomez from the meeting please, until she agrees to follow the rules of decorum,” Jones said.
Councilwoman Becerra, who had continued to videotape the proceedings from her vantage all along, stood up from her position on the dais to better angle her laptop camera at Gomez, who had moved into her seat behind the dais. Two deputies, who had previously begun to retreat when Gomez had gone behind the dais, repurposed themselves to approach her, going themselves behind the dais. One of them, approaching from her right, clasped Gomez’s right wrist and arm, twisting it behind her as the other deputy, having gone to the other side of the dais and behind it, approached her from her left. That deputy then twisted her left arm behind her back as her handcuffing was effectuated. Gomez nevertheless managed to place what appeared to be the cell phone she was livestreaming the meeting with on the dais counter. As the deputies were carting her off, Gomez instructed a young woman who appeared to be her adolescent daughter to come forward and use the phone’s video camera to “show that. Show them I’m being arrested right now.”
After the deputies took Gomez out of the field of the video, the girl, who had come forward to stand in front of the dais, could be seen angling the phone/camera toward the direction the deputies had taken Gomez in.
Though Gomez is not in the visual field of the council meeting video, she can be heard having an indecipherable exchange, apparently with the deputies. Jones, in a narrative for the video audience, says, “Ms. Gomez is not being hurt in any manner.”
Meanwhile, Becerra, who was continuing to video Gomez with her laptop, followed Gomez and the deputies outside the visual field of the video by moving from behind the dais.
Thereafter, with Gomez apparently outside the chamber and no longer audible on the video, Becerra returned to her place on the dais and the proceedings resumed. Jones apologized to the audience, saying “Our council meetings are not town hall meetings,” and emphasizing that in holding the meetings, “We follow rules of policy, procedure, decorum.”
Jones allowed the next person to address the council to speak for 4 minutes and 50 seconds, one minute and 50 seconds over the three-minute limit.
According to available documentation, Gomez was transported to the High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto, where she was booked on charges of violating California Penal Code 403 – disturbing a public meeting and PC 602.1(B) – interfering with a lawful business.
She remained in custody as of today, Friday, June 24, and is next scheduled to appear in court on March 1.
Gomez had been scheduled for a pretrial hearing on four misdemeanor charges outstanding against her stemming from incidents on two occasions, one at the Panera Bread Bakery cafe in Victorville on June 2, 2021 and another at Victorville City Hall on July 20, 2021.
The first matter entails one misdemeanor count of PC148(a)1, resisting, obstructing or delaying of a peace officer and one misdemeanor count of PC242 – battery, both stemming from the June 2 incident in which she and her significant other, Robert Rodriguez, had a confrontation with cafe employees over Rodriguez’s insistence on vaping within the establishment.
The second case involved a situation similar to what occurred this week. On July 20, 2021, during a Victorville City Council meeting, Rodriguez was using his cell phone to video the proceedings. Also present at the meeting was Mayor Jones’ husband, Gene Jones. Like Rodriguez, Gene Jones was using his cell phone to video the council proceedings. When Mayor Jones demanded that Rodriguez desist in his videotaping without issuing a similar order to her husband and deputies approached Rodriguez to enforce the mayor’s order, Gomez came out of her chair behind the dais and went into the gallery. A tussle between Rodriguez and Gomez on one end and the deputies on the other ensued, with Rodriguez and Gomez being arrested.
Rodriguez, who did not waive his right to a speedy trial, went before a jury in December 2021 on the charges against him stemming from the June 2, 2021 and July 20, 2021 incidents along with another matter pertaining to him causing a disturbance at the July 6, 2021 Victorville City Council meeting. On December 29, 2021, Rodriguez was convicted on the cases pertaining to the June 2 and July 20 incidents but acquitted on the charges relating to the July 6 meeting.
Gomez, who consented to delays in the trying of the case against her, is facing, in addition to the PC148(a)1 and PC242 charges stemming from the June 2, 2021 Panera Bread incident, another count of PC148(a)1 – resisting, obstructing or delaying of a peace officer and one count of PC403 – disturbance of a public meeting, relating to her action on July 20.
Trial on those four charges was set for last month, but issues developed over the selection of a jury and Gomez’s motion to recuse Judge Katrina West, who was going to preside over the case.
Today’s pretrial hearing for that case was supposed to take place with Gomez out of custody, but her arrest Tuesday night and a declaration that she was ineligible for bail resulted in her hearing taking place before Commissioner: Arthur Benner II at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse this afternoon at 1:30 p.m. Commissioner Benner scheduled an in-custody pretrial hearing for Gomez on March 1 in Department V-6 at the Victorville Courthouse.
David Loy, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, today wrote a letter to Jones and the remainder of the city council, which was electronic carbon copied to San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson.
“On behalf of the First Amendment Coalition, I write to express strong concern that the removal of Council Member Blanca Gomez from the city council meeting and her arrest on February 21, 2023, violated the Brown Act and federal and state constitutions. By copy of this letter to the San Bernardino County District Attorney, I am asking that the charges against her be dismissed immediately. Whatever the merits of any assertions by Council Member Gomez or any disputes she has with other council members, on which I take no position, the removal and arrest of an elected official or community member should be an absolute last resort. Abuse of such power threatens the fabric of democracy and open government.”
Loy noted that Mayor Jones interrupted Gomez almost from the outset of her attempt to speak.
“These events present significant concerns for freedom of speech,” Loy wrote. “To begin with, the mayor may have imposed an unlawful prior restraint on Council Member Gomez by preventing her from completing her comments.”
Citing the cases of the Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, and that of Alexander v. United States as well as Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad, which define prior restraint as a command to prevent speech before it occurs, Loy pointed out the principles enunciated by the U. S. Supreme Court that “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights” and “a free society prefers to punish the few who abuse rights of speech after they break the law than to throttle them and all others beforehand. It is always difficult to know in advance what an individual will say, and the line between legitimate and illegitimate speech is often so finely drawn that the risks of freewheeling censorship are formidable.”
Jones was not legally authorized to cut Gomez off, as she had not disclosed any confidential information and was merely expressing an opinion concerning the propriety or legality of actions taken by the council, action which she did not specify and therefore did not disclose, according to Loy.
Moreover, Loy said, “The mayor interrupted Council Member Gomez before it was possible to know whether Council Member Gomez would disclose any ‘confidential information’ – or whether the council member’s comments would have fallen within exceptions to the Brown Act’s confidentiality provisions. Accordingly, the mayor’s actions present serious concerns under the First Amendment and Brown Act. After the recess, the mayor again cut off Council Member Gomez, which also presents serious concerns. Council Member Gomez was speaking during non-agenda comment time, which must be open to ‘comment on any matter within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.’ Her comments concerned the alleged actions of other council members, which were well within the city council’s subject matter jurisdiction. No claim was made that she was off topic.”
According to Loy, “To the extent the mayor’s conduct may have been based on Council Member Gomez’s criticism of other council members, it was unlawful. Under the Brown Act, the city ‘shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.’”
Loy cited a ruling in the case of Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District that “a speaker may not be stopped from speaking because the moderator disagrees with the viewpoint he is expressing.”
Loy said “[T]he removal of Council Member Gomez for alleged ‘decorum’ violations presents significant concerns. She did not apparently exceed the time limit for comments. Indeed, she was cut off twice before she could complete her comments within the allotted time. Although she faced the audience during part of her comments, nothing in the city council’s decorum rules clearly prohibits doing so.”
Loy cited Government Code § 54957.95(b)(1) and Government Code § 54957.95(a)(2) in asserting, “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. Regardless of any alleged violation of decorum rules, removal is justified only if an individual does ‘not promptly cease their disruptive behavior.’ Once Council Member Gomez returned to her seat, she had ceased any allegedly disruptive conduct and her removal was not necessarily justified. There are also serious questions whether it was lawful to arrest Council Member Gomez on the charges for which she was booked. Penal Code section 403 requires that a person ‘willfully disturbs or breaks up’ a lawful meeting. Such disturbance requires conduct that ‘substantially impairs the effective conduct of a meeting,’ based on the ‘actual impact’ on ‘the course of the meeting,’ not the subjective opinion of ‘persons present at the meeting.’ To the extent Council Member Gomez remained within her allotted time while protesting interruption of her comments and the events ‘continued for only a few minutes,’ it is far from clear there was ‘substantial impairment of the conduct of the meeting,’ as required to support charges under section 403.4.”
Loy maintains that “It is also far from clear that arrest was justified under Penal Code section 602.1(b), which applies only to a ‘person who intentionally interferes with any lawful business carried on by the employees of a public agency open to the public, by obstructing or intimidating those attempting to carry on business, or those persons there to transact business with the public agency.’ By speaking within her allotted time, Council Member Gomez was not interfering with the city council’s ‘lawful business.’ Indeed, she was engaging in ‘lawful business’ by exercising her right to speak under the Brown Act, the First Amendment, and its California counterpart.”
Loy said Gomez was neither “obstructing [n]or intimidating anyone else from lawfully continuing with the meeting by attempting to exercise her public comment rights within her allotted time.” She fell short of violating Penal Code § 602.1(b), Loy said, as that section of the code requires that someone deemed an offender has to have defied a request to leave. “Council Member Gomez was never asked to leave,” Loy said. “Instead, she was interrupted, admonished, and arrested. With or without probable cause, the arrest may represent retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights. Whatever one might think of Council Member Gomez’s views, she had the fundamental right to speak within her allotted time, no matter how objectionable her claims might be. The charges against her should be dismissed immediately.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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