OUR VIEW: Applaud public participation; don't handcuff it

Erin Kelly / The Meridian Star 

Tommy Williams is led out of a Meridian city council meeting in handcuffs Tuesday night. 

The scene of frequent local government critic Tommy Williams in handcuffs as he was escorted by police out of Tuesday night’s council meeting was disturbing.

The public should be encouraged to attend public meetings and speak their minds at the appropriate times without being excessively stifled. Public participation is one way public bodies can make informed decisions.

Interim Police Chief Charles Coleman directed police to take action against Williams after Coleman perceived Williams was out of order and then refused to leave when asked.

Williams told The Meridian Star later that he had stood and applauded after Meridian Police Lt. Rita Jack gave an impassioned speech to council because she had received notice the city plans to terminate her from her job after more than 22 years of service to the city.

The reason for her possible termination hasn’t been made clear and it follows Jack making a complaint to the Meridian Civil Service Commission alleging gender discrimination.

Coleman didn’t elaborate on the need for having Williams removed from the meeting in handcuffs beyond saying Williams failed to move when asked.

If Williams did more than join others as he stood and clapped, no one else seemed to notice. Mayor Percy Bland said he had his back to the scene, but noted the need for decorum.

Ward 5 Councilman Weston Lindemann, rightfully, called for a clearer explanation on the spot for Williams’ removal in handcuffs. He received none.

Maintaining a focused meeting after the incident was futile, meaning the action did more harm than a momentary outburst.

We understand the need for decorum at public meetings. We know that, especially when there’s a crowd, some people exceed their time to talk, pepper the public body with cat calls or even become threatening. Those incidents do need to be addressed so public business can advance.

While Williams’ persistence in giving a watchdog bite to public officials likely has many of them wishing to see him masked for more than COVID-19 precautionary reasons, he did not seem to exceed “decorum” on this occasion. He’s persistent, but he also ultimately is respectful — to the point of putting on a suit and tie for public meetings.

When an impassioned plea is given at a public meeting by a speaker, it’s to be expected that some people will stand, applaud and cheer. As long as that’s not excessive, it’s not bad. A city council meeting doesn’t require the same restrictions placed on the gallery of a chess match.

A minute or so of outburst should be tolerated if it’s not threatening.

Williams was released at his car a short time later. No citation was issued.

The following day, Coleman said he would resign rather than pursue the full-time police chief’s position. His decision to have Williams led out in handcuffs likely would have cost him any swing votes he may have received when it came time for the council to approve his hiring next month.

We recommend council issue clearer instructions on when a member of the public clearly is, as the mayor phrased it, “out of line” and should be removed. And unless there is a threat of harm, the decision for removal should be left to the person chairing the meeting rather than police.

We should applaud public discourse, not discourage it or prevent it by placing the public in handcuffs.

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