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October 20, 2013

Citizens have a right to speak at, but not disrupt, city council meetings

MERIDIAN — We were glad to see the Meridian City Council earlier this week voted to reinstate citizens' comments.

    On May 7, in a 3-2 vote, the council voted to discontinue the long-running practice of allowing residents to speak at council meetings. The change went into effect in June. While we understand why the council chose to prevent residents from speaking at council meetings, it was a bad decision.

    At the May 7 meeting, Council President George Thomas said, "The concern we have is that we have some people who appear to think that they can come speak on any issue — regardless of how it affects the business operation of the city of Meridian. This meeting is a business meeting; it is not a public forum for people to come and speak."

    At issue was a group of residents who regularly disrupted council meetings with topics that did not relate to council business. Prior to the May vote, a woman was removed from a council meeting for singing during the citizens' comment period.

    As Thomas said of the group members, "They came with scripts and would read for their three minutes, pass it to the next person for three minutes and pass it to the next person for three minutes. It didn't allow the public to speak. That one group dominated."

    The group should have never been allowed to dominate the meetings in the first place. Action taken by the council in May should have been aimed at curtailing the behavior of those disrupting the meetings and not implementing a blanket policy that prevented all residents from voicing their opinions on matters of city business.

    New rules approved by the council this week that sets guidelines for citizens' comments seeks to address some of the problems encountered in the past.

    Among other things, the new rules state:

        • A maximum of 15 minutes will be allotted at each council meeting for citizen comments.

        • Each person allowed to speak will be limited to three minutes each.

        • All remarks are to be addressed to the council as a whole; not to any individual council members.

        • The council will not take any official action based on the comments of a citizen at that particular meeting, but they may decide to take it up at a later time.

    • Topics to be discussed are limited to the business of the city of Meridian.

    The new rules also spell out actions that will be taken if a person violates the rules of debate, manner of addressing the council, or decorum:

        • First Violation - Denied the opportunity to address the council for three months.

        • Second Violation -  Denied opportunity for six months.

        • Third Violation -  Denied the opportunity for one year.

        • Fourth Violation -  Preclusion of the citizen to address the city council at a city council meeting.

    We think the council made a wise decision by requiring citizens to address the council as a whole and not to individual council members.

    At a Sept. 24 special meeting on the city's health insurance carrier, some residents upset when Thomas justifiably tried to keep the meeting on topic angrily approached him at the council dais. Some of the same residents would later protest outside city hall.

    As Ward Two Councilman Dustin Markham rightly pointed out, citizens who wish to speak at meetings need to remain civil.

        "Speaking out of turn; speaking over the voice of the mayor; speaking over the voices of the city council will not be tolerated," Markham said.

    While we support the council's decision to reinstate citizens' comments and recognize the need to set guidelines, we aren't entirely happy with the outcome.

    Limiting residents' comments to three minutes each and capping the time allowed at 15 minutes means that, potentially, only five people will be allowed to speak each meeting.

    Does the sixth, or seventh, person who desires to speak but will not be allowed to do so have any less rights than those who get to voice their opinions? We don't think so.

    After all, it is taxpaying citizens who keep the city running, and they have a right to be heard.

    We can also foresee potential issues with actions to be taken against those who "violate the rules of debate, manner of addressing the council, or decorum."

    It is one thing to deny someone the right to speak before the council if they are purposely disrupting a council meeting. It is another matter altogether if someone inadvertently breaks a rule and is barred from speaking at future meetings.

    We hope the council will be judicious in imposing the penalties.

    Ultimately, while we think the council could have handled the matter differently, the issue that led to citizens' right to comment at the public meetings was the fault of those handful of residents who attempted to use the meetings as their personal bully pulpit.

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