Government / Politics

San Benito County refining guidelines for COVID-19 penalties

Supervisors split over terms of ordinance.

Lacking a required 4/5 vote for approval on July 21, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors pushed the adoption of administrative penalties and civil enforcement of state COVID-19 guidelines to an Aug. 4 meeting

While Supervisor Peter Hernandez opposed the ordinance completely, Supervisor Mark Medina said he could not support it unless it was only directed at the face-covering order. The ordinance would only apply to the unincorporated areas of San Benito County.

Board Chair Jaime De La Cruz directed Medina, who said he had been back and forth on the issue, to work with staff on vetting concerns about the ordinance including violations of the guidelines set by the state. County Counsel Barbara Thompson said those violations included businesses that open against the orders and gatherings.

“At this time there is just too much gray area,” Medina said. “There are too many unknowns, there are too many doubts, there are too many things out there that we would not be able to correctly enforce.”

At the meeting, Thompson announced changes in the ordinance to reflect concerns Supervisor Jim Gillio had received from constituents, such as the fine amounts, how fine revenue would be used by the county and the ordinance’s expiration date. 

The $25 to $500 fine range for noncommercial violations was changed to a written warning for the first offense, $75 for a second offense, $125 for a third violation and $200 for any additional violations.

For commercial violations, the fine range of $250 to $10,000 was changed to verbal warning for the first offense, $150 for a second offense, $350 for a third offense, and $750 for any additional violations.

“I think that that will make an ordinance that will encourage compliance without being unreasonably punitive,” Thompson said. 

The ordinance includes a 24- to 72-hour grace period in which a code enforcement officer could allow offenders to resolve the violation without being cited. It also includes a 10-day appeal period for any citation. Offenders, if cited, would have 30 days to pay the fine. 

Revenues from citations would be used toward COVID-19 relief efforts such as grants to businesses, Thompson said. An expiration date of 45 days was also included, with the possibility of being extended with board approval.

Seventeen members of the public spoke against the ordinance, saying it pitted neighbors against each other and that it could be used as a weapon against people who don’t agree with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“I’m absolutely appalled that this could even arise as something you would vote on,” resident Patty Spears said. “I asked over a month ago, almost two months ago, what is your end stake? What is the actual end stake at which you will stop restricting businesses? Because this can go on forever.”

Hernandez questioned the ability of those facing a citation to defend themselves against complainants whose identity would stay confidential. Though Thompson explained that citations are not given as a result of a complaint but by the code enforcement officer witnessing an infraction and that an administrative hearing would follow, Hernandez said people have the right to face the accuser.

“It puts the defendant in a lot tougher position than the complainant,” Hernandez said. “The complainant can walk away scott free not worrying about whether they just crushed a business, whether they just crushed an individual. It doesn’t matter and I don’t think that’s right. There is a reason why it’s in the Constitution for you to be able to confront your accuser.”

Supervisors Anthony Botelho and De La Cruz said San Benito County must have an enforcement capability in place before California sets its own on the county. 

“In this one case we are handicapped,” De La Cruz said. “If we don’t have any kind of enforcement in place, the CARES Act money has a great potential to being diverted back to the state or the federal government. And sooner or later the state of California is going to come and enforce some type of ordinance.”

De La Cruz added, “I prefer local control.” 

 

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.