An internet-fueled controversy over the social media posts of a member of a Petaluma committee formed in the wake of last year’s racial justice protests came to a contentious end at a city council meeting on Monday, July 12.
The Petaluma City Council voted 5-1 to remove Stefan Perez, a Petaluma resident, from the recently-formed Ad Hoc Community Advisory Committee (AHCAC). Councilmember Mike Healy, the lone vote opposed to removing Perez, implied that the city was infringing Perez’s First Amendment rights. The rest of the council, the city attorney and most residents who spoke at the meeting disagreed with Healy’s concerns.
The city council appointed Perez to the AHCAC at a March 15 meeting. The AHCAC is tasked with discussing what makes community members—particularly those from marginalized groups—feel unsafe in Petaluma, and with providing recommendations to the city council on city and police policies aimed at improving race relations.
At the time of his appointment, several Petaluma residents spoke in support of Perez. Others raised concerns about his social media posts and online interactions during the past year, including comments Perez made on the Nextdoor app raising alarm about racial justice protests by alleging that BLM activists and “antifa” members were dangerous.
In late May, Perez rose to infamy after Chad Loder, an influential Twitter user, shared social media posts made by Perez featuring Nazi imagery, and racist and misogynistic humor. Loder also alleged that Perez managed several Golden State Nationalist social media accounts which harassed local racial justice activists last year. Perez’s attorney has denied that his client is behind the Nationalist accounts and stated that Perez’s personal social media posts were meant as “jokes and dark humor.”
Last week, after remaining largely silent about the allegations against Perez, the council added an item to their July 12 agenda to remove Perez from the AHCAC. The agenda was published on the evening of July 8 with the Perez item on the consent calendar, a section of the meeting intended to group together non-controversial items which can be passed without much discussion between councilmembers.
The only thing critics and supporters of Perez seemed to agree about at the Monday night meeting was that it was cowardly of the city council to add the item to the agenda’s consent calendar, rather than make their perspectives on the matter known.
Indeed, it appears the city council attempted to kick Perez off the committee as quietly as possible. A 7-page staff report explaining the decision in front of the council first mentions Perez’s name on page 6. The report does not specify the reason behind the city’s decision to remove Perez from the committee. Instead, it states that the city council “has the inherent power to remove and replace members of the AHCAC in the Council’s discretion, with or without cause,” then refers to that in its resolution to remove Perez from the committee and abolish his seat.
Councilmember Mike Healy, who said that there was no “legally defensible rationale” for removing Perez from the AHCAC, moved to take the item off the consent calendar, in order to allow for more discussion.
“Sometimes the First Amendment requires government agencies… to do things they are uncomfortable with, and would prefer not to have to do, but that’s pretty much what the First Amendment was intended to do. I’m not prepared to evade Mr. Perez’s First Amendment rights by voting to remove him for no particular reason at all,” Healy said. Later in the meeting, city attorney Eric Danly, who drafted the agenda item, stated that he believed there “is a legally defensible rationale for the action.”
Between written and spoken comments, about 25 members of the public expressed their opinions on the removal of Perez. The majority of commenters supported the move on the grounds that Perez’s views seemed opposed to the work of the committee. Other commenters said that other AHCAC members were uncomfortable with Perez’s presence.
During his comments to the council, Perez did not allege that his First Amendment rights were being infringed. Instead, he accused the council of “taking the easy way out” by bowing to the “special interest groups” who appointed other members of the AHCAC.
In public comment, Paloma Fautley offered a counterpoint to Perez’s take, stating that she feels that identifying designated community groups to select representatives for appointment on the AHCAC was a sound process.
“[The city] talked to a lot of local groups and said, ‘Who do you want to represent you?’ and [those groups] gave you their best—they gave you the people they thought would address this [topic] for their specific groups—and they trusted those people to support them. And so, saying ‘Hey, this person who was not appointed by any group actually isn’t qualified, wasn’t vetted properly and should have gone through that normal process’—I see nothing wrong with that,” Fautley said.
On Monday, Perez told the council, “I joined the committee because I saw a lack of proper representation, and I don’t just mean ethnic representation. I’m talking about diversity of thought.”
Back in March, when Perez made his appeal to the council to join the committee, he said that his perspective as an Indigenous person who had not had any negative interactions with Petaluma police would be a valuable perspective to include. However, at the July 12 meeting commenters noted that the police department already sends representatives to AHCAC meetings, making it redundant to have a police supporter on the committee, which is tasked with finding ways in which the police can improve at serving and protecting marginalized communities.
“[The AHCAC] exists to address power imbalance that exists between marginalized people and society and law enforcement. And the conduct of Mr. Perez in the meetings so far has demonstrated that he’s … unapologetically pro-police and his presence on the committee is not helping balance this power imbalance that exists within society,” Christopher Neugebauer told the council.
Other Petaluma residents pushed back on Healy’s First Amendment concerns.
“The way that we’re talking about the First Amendment is not actually what the First Amendment is … You can’t be silenced completely, but you don’t get a right to every platform; when you submit a letter to the editor, they don’t have to publish it,” Sarah Casmith said during public comment.
In comments before voting, Mayor Teresa Barrett said she was not convinced by the free speech argument either.
“There are many people in that group that I have no idea where they stand [with regard to] what their personal values are, but what I do want is to remove any impediment to that group moving forward in a very timely fashion and working at the highest level they can,” Barrett said.
Thoughts, tips or comments? You can reach Will Carruthers at [email protected]