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Hoping to give officials a tool to reign in uncivil behavior at City meetings, Evanston City Council members moved to approve new guidelines of decorum for speakers at future City Council meetings, standing committees and ward meetings.
At their April 15 meeting, aldermen approved a recommendation from City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz for new guidelines of decorum during Council and other meetings, including giving the mayor the ability to bar a speaker from participating during the meeting.
The types of behavior that could trigger such an action apply to any person “who makes such remarks, or who utters loud, threatening, personal or abusive language, or engages in any other disorderly conduct which disrupts, disturbs, or otherwise impedes the orderly conduct of a meeting,” the resolution stated.
The guidelines further give the Mayor or presiding officer authority to interrupt any speaker who is violating the rules or disrupting a meeting.
In such cases, the Mayor or presiding officer shall attempt “to provide a verbal warning to any attendee or particular speaker that may be violating these rules,” the guidelines stated, “but such verbal warning shall not be required as a condition for a speaker to have his or her microphone turned off or the speaker removed from the meeting.”
Officials introduced the new guidelines following the citizen comment portion of April 8 City Council meeting, where City Clerk Devon Reid moved to turn off the microphones in Council chambers.
Mr. Reid took the action in the midst of heated remarks that speaker Albert Gibbs directed first at Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and later the full Council, charging the group was “racist and prejudiced.”
Mr. Gibbs was first speaking about the Robert Crown Community Center development but then switched his focus to statements made by Ald. Rainey at a Ridgeville Park District meeting last month.
Presiding over the council meeting, Mayor Stephen Hagerty attempted several times to get Mr. Gibbs to tone down his remarks before the City Clerk moved to switch off the microphones.
Mr. Reid said he turned off the microphones because he didn’t feel “it was appropriate for a member of the public and an aldermen to use this platform to argue back and forth. I don’t think that’s proper decorum for this venue.”
Addressing the City Council at their April 15 meeting, Mr. Bobkiewicz said that at the conclusion of the April 8 meeting, “I was concerned that the Council rules do not provide any sufficient language dealing with decorum.”
Based on discussion with the City’s Corporate Counsel, as well as his own research, Mr. Bobkiewicz said the language he was proposing would “add something to the rules, in order for the Mayor and presiding officer to have some ability to have a speaker cease if they are in violation of those issues.”
Further, he noted that the guidelines applied to not only the Council but the Council standing committees as well as Ward meetings.
On adding Ward meetings, Mr. Bobkiewicz said that in discussions with Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, who had to leave the meeting earlier, the alderman had expressed concern about getting feedback from residents unwilling to come to future Ward meetings because “the voices of a few had become so loud, so angry.”
“So I think as we look to transparency, as we look to citizen engagement,” he told Council members, “we need to be mindful that the loudest, most angry voice does not drown out other voices.”
In discussion, Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, suggested that education of citizens about the limit of citizen comment may help “cut back the frustration among some individuals.” At the same time, she said that when aldermen are asking citizens to follow the rules, “that we also follow the rules ourselves.”
Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he can appreciate the need for decorum. “What I’m a little bit hesitant about is when we first started this conversation several months ago we really focused on the Council, and now we come all the way back over to the residents, and I’d like to see this land somewhere in the middle.”
Ald. Braithwaite added that if was in Ald. Rainey’s place, “I would understand how disturbing the conversation was.” He said, though, that while Mr. Gibbs “was being loud, and Mr. Gibbs has a very powerful voice,” he could not recall whether the remarks themselves were threatening.
He said he would like to have some more discussion on the issue in general, “versus taking a knee jerk reaction.”
Both Aldermen Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, and Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, veteran members of the Council, said there seem to have been an upsurge in such incidents.
“I have been really concerned, though, having watched the City Council for a whole lot of years, that something has happened over the last couple of years,” Ald. Fiske said. “And my concern is a lot of people I’ve known to be very, very reasonable have expressed to me their reluctance to come and speak at the Council because of the way they have been treated in this building, by very vocal advocates for certain positions, and that has extended, not only throughout this building but to the parking lot.”
Ald. Wynne agreed. “I think the tenor and the tone have changed over the years, and I think at different times we have had this issue where we had someone who has been disruptive or disturbing, and the mayor has not had a tool to use – no ability to exercise something from our rules.
“I think this [the new guideline] is going to be rarely if ever used,” she added. “But I think there have been times, and it wasn’t just recently but in the past, where I know Mayor Tisdahl [former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl] was left with no tools to use.”
Along with the recommendation for immediate changes, Mr. Bobkiewicz attached rules of decorum from the city of Boulder, Col., suggesting they be reviewed.
He said if Council concurs with the guidelines presented at the April 15 meeting, staff will bring additional amendments to the City Council Rules at the June 3 Rules Committee meeting.