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News / Clark County News

Council may clarify rules after outburst

Comments should be about issues city can act upon, mayor says

By Andrea Damewood
Published: September 17, 2010, 12:00am

Several groups have posted media of the confrontation:

A video is HERE

Audio from the Lars Larson radio talk show is HERE

The Vancouver City Council will soon discuss revamping guidelines about content and decorum in the way citizens address elected officials, Mayor Tim Leavitt said Thursday.

Leavitt’s remarks follow an explosive council meeting Monday during which Councilor Jeanne Harris exchanged heated words with two anti-toll citizen speakers and Councilor Jeanne Stewart. Part of the meltdown at City Hall centered around about what and to whom citizens could speak.

The incident has triggered an ethics investigation by the council and a public apology from Harris.

But as weekly comments from many of the same people talking about issues such as light rail and tolling continue, Leavitt said it’s time to clarify speech guidelines. The city attorney’s office began that work in August.

“We’re clarifying it for informational purposes for folks,” Leavitt said. “We want to listen to you, but let’s be realistic about what’s in the influence of your city council. It’s more productive if you talk to us about issues we can inform upon or issues we can look ahead to.”

The mayor said he doesn’t intend to stop allowing people to speak about light rail or tolls, or any other of the topics that are brought ad nauseam to the council nearly every week.

Since January, Leavitt’s council agreed to hear public testimony each week instead of every other week and also began holding quarterly town hall meetings.

Leavitt and most on the council maintain that the council has already voted on a locally preferred alternative on the Columbia River Crossing that includes light rail in 2008, and that tolling is a State Legislature issue.

“When folks come in and testify on things that aren’t within our realm or control, I’ll be more verbal in my questioning of, ‘What do you want the city council to do about this matter?” Leavitt said. “We’ll still allow people their three minutes.”

Not public forums

While city policy states that “all remarks will be addressed to the council as a whole,” guidelines actually say that “the public is invited to speak to the council on any issue.”

City Attorney Ted Gathe said that doesn’t matter. City council meetings are not public forums, he said.

“The council can go back and amend this policy next week if they want,” Gathe said.

David Madore, founder of notolls.com and a frequent speaker at city council meetings, began laughing when he heard about any changes to speaker policies.

“Who are they to define what the citizens think is relevant to current city business?” he asked. “You could make it really simple: You could speak as long as you like as long as we agree with you. … Whatever it takes to silence the dissent.”

Stewart said Thursday that she hadn’t heard about any policy revisions and was also concerned they would be encroaching on free speech.

Materials available at the meetings should match what’s in the city’s guidelines and policies, so there’s no mix up when a councilor or mayor tells a speaker, for example, that individual councilors may not be addressed.

Current materials given at meetings to speakers do not contain that stipulation, although it is available online.

She also said that speakers should be encouraged to discuss anything with the council.

“I did not agree with Tim that (light rail and tolls) are not related to city business,” Stewart said. “They’re relevant because they’ll have an economic impact on the city.”

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Goal of civility

Creating clearer guidelines will keep city council meetings more civil, Harris said.

The council may also want to consider adding something like requiring 30 days before a person can speak again to them on a topic, Harris said. Many other cities across the nation have similar policies, she said.

She said if the council sits and listens to speakers without responding, those listening may think that what a citizen is asserting is true. But if the council responds, it can lead to an argument.

“It sounds like we’re taking away their freedom of speech, or dictatorial or elitist,” she said. “But we have to have guidelines in place in order to manage and control the meetings so it doesn’t get out of control — it can get very emotional.”

That idea was met with resistance from Stewart, who was wary of limiting speech.

For his part, Leavitt said he may begin a more strict enforcement of the three-minute rule, along with taking a more hard line stance with those who speak every week or about things he feels are not under their control.

“The general point of a city council meeting is to conduct the city’s business,” Leavitt said. “My hope is that folks recognize that there is productive communication with the council and there is unproductive communication.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.

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