Signs such as this at a recent City Council meeting may be subject to new guidelines under consideration.                                                                                                RoundTable photo

City officials are moving forward on rules to foster greater decorum at public meetings, including establishing guidelines for the banners and posters which local activists have been placing around City Council chambers in recent months highlighting their positions.

Aldermen on the City Council’s Rules Committee gave staff the OK at their June 3 meeting to begin preparing guidelines governing the placement of such signs. Staff also sought direction from Council members on citizens standing during meeting and remote participation by members of the public in discussions when they are not on site.

In recent months, local activists have affixed banners and posters to the walls and windows of Council chambers. In addition, posters are waved and held aloft during the meetings, staff noted.

“The signs are disruptive, block the views of other meeting attendees and prevent the conduct of the meetings,” said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup in a memo.

In discussion, Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she would prefer if residents could find a way to contain their placement of signs, not affixing them over the permanent art already in display in the room or obstructing views.

“I’m inclined not to make a bunch of rules that are going to make everything worse, because now everybody is going to feel we’re trying to be your parents,” she said.

On a scale of acceptable behaviors, “I’d rather you hold a sign telling me you don’t agree, versus yelling and screaming at a person who is speaking,” she told residents. “At least that’s silent protest.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, also said she saw a use for signs, especially when the Council gets more people wishing to speak on an issue than the allotted time for public participation permits.

“So I’m sympathetic to the idea of some banners and posters along the side of the room where they are not blocking the views of other residents, because I do think it provides a way for some people to express their opinion,” she said.

A number of aldermen focused their comments, though, on public participation in general, charging a contentious atmosphere created by some residents around issues is discouraging other residents from participating.

“I said some time ago at Council how I heard from so many people that want to participate in the discussion and just didn’t want to run the gauntlet out here – starting in the parking lot, coming through the building in the anteroom and into the Council chambers,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward.

“They just felt it wasn’t worth it – that they were being yelled, harassed, it was really discouraging.”

“We do need to have discussion,” she said, agreeing with residents, “but the comments and negativity surrounding it and the harassment that actually comes from some people diminishes the opportunity to have that discussion.”

As for signs and posters at meetings, Ald. Fiske said the issue needs more discussion, but “I would rather not have signs, cheering or any form of demonstration that can make people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in this room and anteroom because that really extends to the Council,” she said.

Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Donald Wilson, 4th Ward; and Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, weighed in with similar views.

“I have many residents contact me that have interest, want to come and participate and are intimidated by what they see on Channel 16 [the City channel], and they stay home,” said Ald. Simmons. “I don’t know exactly how we get there, but I do want to make the community aware that if we are fighting so hard for democracy and inclusion that our actions are keeping some important voices away.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, pointed to “disrespectful behavior that comes out of the country’s executive office” as a possible influence – a particularly loaded charge in intensely Democratic Evanston.

“And I feel like in a town that is so special and dear to us all – that’s why we all serve – our City of Evanston, particularly some of our residents, are adopting that similar behavior that we tend to shake our finger at,” he said.

“Where are we going with this?” he asked residents. “If your feeling of not being heard gives you the right to swear at members of Council, then I really think we’ve lost our way.”

But residents, earlier in the meeting, said Council members needed to look at their own actions.

“Signs banners, speaking in whatever form, are First Amendment rights and we should maintain those,” said Michael Vasilko. “Council members should look at ways to make communication with constituents more productive and more rewarding. Instead, the City has gone out of its way to make communications with its constituents more difficult, more frustrating, all of which leads to escalating animosity, and I don’t know why we are going down this path.”

Lori Keenan, another speaker, observed that “there is a breakdown in trust, and that’s why there has been a breakdown in decorum. And the more you push us, the more we will fight back, until there is more transparency not less,” she told Council members.

She pointed to last week’s action – Council members supporting a resolution adding Freedom of Information officers to join City Clerk Devon Reid – an action many residents saw as a move to diminish the independent Clerk’s authority.

Repair breaches like that, Ms. Keenan challenged aldermen, and “then we will start to have trust again, then the numbers of FOI [Freedom of Information] requests will start to drop again, then we will start to believe the things you are telling us.”

Mary Rosinski, another speaker, said, “It always feels like the residents are always being blamed.

“I think the reason people are so upset is because we do not feel that the truth is being said. And when you talk to people and you keep slamming the door in their faces and have contrived conversations that are supposed to be spontaneous …”

Referring to a meeting on the new Robert Crown Center, she said, “A 90-minute video when people are asking for discussion is just outlandish.”

Carlis Sutton, also a longtime resident, started his talk reciting the section of the Constitution prohibiting the abridgment of free speech and providing other protections.

“For years I taught the Constitution in this City,” Mr. Sutton, a retired District 202 teacher, told aldermen. “I would like to see it be in effect.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.