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Mayor Leavitt ready to cut open mic at city council meetings

Unfettered access to TV audience could become a memory

By
Published: February 19, 2011, 12:00am

Citing what he calls an intimidating atmosphere and a lack of true engagement with the city council, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt is proposing pulling the plug — literally — on citizen communications as they are now.

Instead of letting people speak on any topic they wish, as CVTV cameras broadcast it all, Leavitt wants to limit citizen comment during the televised meetings to topics on that night’s agenda only, a move that would effectively end what’s become a weekly parade of pro-and-anti Columbia River Crossing speakers.

Those who want to speak about nonagenda topics would be given the opportunity to do so during a once-a-month town hall to be held after a city council meeting is over, he said. And that would be done with the CVTV cameras off.

However, Leavitt’s proposal has enraged a number of council meeting regulars, who say that Leavitt is trying to silence their public criticism of the CRC.

Turning off CVTV and limiting speaking topics is a violation of free speech, Councilor Jeanne Stewart said.

“That’s the convenient thing to do if you don’t want other people to know what people are talking about,” Stewart said Friday. “This is a profound change and a profound trend.”

But Leavitt said that it’s the actions — not the words — of CRC opponents that are bringing around the proposed changes.

“The irony here is that the same people we will hear squeal about any changes to citizens’ communication are the very same individuals who have created an acrimonious environment in our council chambers, and are therefore trying to squelch the freedom of speech of others,” he said.

He cited a Feb. 7 council meeting, when Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Tonya Rulli, who is Leavitt’s friend, spoke before the council in favor of the bridge project. Rulli heard snickers, grunts and other comments, and was stared down by Josephine Wentzel, spokeswoman for NoTolls.com, when she returned to her seat, Leavitt said. She later complained to Leavitt she felt intimidated.

‘Not welcoming’

Vancouver resident Jim Mains, 34, also wrote to the mayor to complain after that meeting. He said he attends on a regular basis, and sometimes likes to bring other people along, but that day, he left early. Mains said Friday it’s not the tolling issue that’s the concern, it’s the unwelcoming environment for newcomers when the regulars act like they own meetings.

“Last week, I brought a young man with me that was quizzed outside of chambers by the no tolls woman that speaks on a regular basis,” he wrote. “She asked him who he was, and when he did not answer her, she told Jim Karlock, ‘Find out who he is and why he is here.’ This is not the welcoming environment that I would think you, as leaders of our community, would want to have set as the example for our younger generation.”

Wentzel, who was the council’s most frequent speaker in the last six months, denied that she “stared down” Rulli, and says the CVTV footage proves that. She said she had “no idea” regarding the incident that Mains wrote about. She said the whole issue is being conjured up to cut her off.

“The reason that the Mayor wants to turn the cameras off is very reason that we need those cameras running to reveal the truth,” she wrote in an e-mail response Friday. “In this case, we are thankful that everything was clearly recorded to debunk the mayor’s fabricated story. If the mayor fabricates such nonsense that is clearly contradicted by the cameras, what will he fabricate after he turns the cameras off during citizen communications?”

Outspoken light-rail critic Larry Patella, 81, said he was offended that Rulli called anti-CRC speakers “liars” in her statement to the council.

“Led by Councilman (Jack) Burkman, who cheered Mayor Leavitt for carrying out what I believe are Orders from his White House Visit and Senator Patty Murray to ignore and silence us, we were, in my opinion, treated as liars,” he wrote to his e-mail listserv on Feb. 8.

Citizen communications has been a sore point for the last year. Leavitt enraged several frequent commenters shortly after taking office in January 2010, when he moved communications from the beginning to the end of the meeting. He also increased their frequency to weekly instead of biweekly.

It was also during citizen communication that Councilor Jeanne Harris infamously sparred with speaker Steve Herman and NoTolls.com founder David Madore, calling on Leavitt to “gavel down” the speakers.

Several cities limit topics that can be discussed at city council meetings — neither Seattle nor Tacoma permit speakers to talk about anything but agenda items. In Portland, speakers may discuss off-agenda topics, but only once a month.

Though Leavitt, as chair of the meeting, makes the final call on any changes to citizen communication, he said he wouldn’t do it without the support of the city council. Stewart has sent an e-mail to the city attorney asking about the legality of the proposal.

The council is set to discuss the changes on Feb. 28.

Councilors Burkman, Larry Smith and Pat Campbell voiced support for the changes this week.

“The process is being hijacked from the rest of the community,” Smith said. “That’s disturbing to me. What we’re trying to do is manage a process, and not try to manage content and free speech.”

Burkman agreed that it’s not a free speech issue — people speak to councilors by phone, at town hall meetings, by e-mail and by many other routes, he said.

“That fact is, a small group has figured out how to hold the council hostage and take advantage of CVTV,” he said. “The feedback I’m getting is, we’re not providing an environment that’s open.”

Stewart said she hears the opposite: That people find the city council hostile, not the crowd.

“I hear that every day, everywhere I go,” she said. “They say: ‘I don’t want to come down, sit through a meeting and then have the council treat me disrespectfully and disregard what I’m saying.’”

Councilor Bart Hansen said he’s unsure about cutting of CVTV. He doesn’t want people to be intimidated by heckling, but said the mayor may be “creating a problem to try and fix a problem.”

“I have serious concerns about that issue,” he said. “If you turn the camera off on one person, you turn the camera off on everybody. All alternatives have to be considered.”

Leavitt said the monthly town halls he wants to start would be in addition to the quarterly town halls held in various locations away from City Hall.

He said he believes the town halls will be a more open and friendly way for both citizens and the council to have a dialogue.

“If folks are seriously there to speak to city council, and are not utilizing the fact that we are televised as a platform to try and deliver their message, there should be no argument,” he said. “We’re increasing the accessibility of the mayor and council.”

It’s likely that even if Leavitt orders CVTV turned off for those not speaking about agenda items, there will still be lenses trained on the discussions.

“Because the cameras are going to be turned off by his decree, we will make sure our cameras are already there,” Madore told KATU this week.

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

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