Gainesville Commission Democrats Discuss Shutting Down Citizen Comment – Aug 16, 2012

Transcript from 08/16/2012 City Commission discussion about limiting Citizen Comments

Lowe:  Mr. Clerk, last item?

City Clerk:   Yes, commission comment.

Commissioner Poe: Yeah, Mr Mayor this is something I brought up to some degree of criticism towards the end of my last term this last comment kind of rekindled my frustration and I want to take the temperature of the rest of the commission. Because I firmly believe when citizens get up and comment and personally insult other citizens or commissioners, they have lost their right to speak during public comment to the rest of the dais. Commissioner Chase was treated in a manner that was absolutely unacceptable and so was Mr. Brinkman as well as Mr. Radson and that is troubling to me.

Because I think if there were — if the purpose of the commission comment and citizen comment is to further civic discourse, then it is an important thing.  But when it denigrates to a level of name-calling and hurtful speech, I don’t think we as a commission should endorse that or, you know, or allow it to exist parallel with what is constructive criticism, whether we agree or disagree with what people are saying.

You know, for example, I have no problem with Ms. Stahmer responding to comments I made on an issue. That is what the process is for. But to take it to another level, which I think happened three different times tonight, I feel like we have a responsibility to do something about that. And I don’t know what that is and we could ask our attorney, you know, what legal right – I know there is first amendment rights that are in play here but I also think we have a right to have a forum that is civil and collaborative and constructive.

And so, you know, with that, I — if anybody has any comments on their feelings about that, I would like to hear them.

And if everyone is sort of okay with the tenor that was expressed tonight, then, you know, I’ll be quiet.

Mayor:   I don’t think anyone would find those comments to be okay and actually, I think they reflect solely on those that make those comments, that they don’t contribute to constructive dialogue in the least.

Poe: right.

Mayor:   Mr. Radson, what are our options with regard to comments of that nature and first amendment?

Radson: Mr. Mayor, members of the commission, I had this conversation I initiated with the charter officers in one of our luncheons a couple months ago and suggested that citizen comment was opened by the city commission as first amendment and it is, it has no limitation.

You have opened it up as a public forum. This is ordinarily a limited public forum and you are required to address the items of business that are on the agenda but the commission, years ago, not this particular commission, by its own rules, opened it up for open comment on any subject, really unlimited. One could get up and speak about the problems in another country for three minutes. We had at one point a citizen reading from the bible for three minutes. That was before most of you were on this dais, and he would do it for a couple of weeks, just reading various biblical passages.

What I provided the charter officers with, and happy to provide you with a copy, did a survey of what other local governments have done in this area in terms of their rules and I can provide that to the city commission.

It is narrowing the topic down and putting some limitations which you can do as long as it’s neutral on its face, not content-based and objective and it applies to everyone without exception. So you don’t make exceptions.

I heard earlier today that to avoid — this was in a larger community but to avoid citizen comment from becoming a forum for personal benefit, sometimes political benefit, this particular government has removed citizen comment from its public airways and it is just not published anywhere in that community except that you can get the video and watch it yourself. They have access, they just don’t publish it on the air waves. They don’t make exceptions and when you start making exceptions, you start to get into content-based exceptions.

With regard to Mr. Kaimowitz, he falls into a little different category because he is an attorney. He is a licensed lawyer and here representing a client or clients — he mentioned two of them. And under the rules of professional responsibility, he
has an obligation higher than a layperson. I would warn him that the Florida Supreme Court, and he should know this, has within the last year amended the oath of admission to the Florida bar that all lawyers must abide by. And we have to sign off on this every year when we renew our membership and that amendment that was made by the Florida Supreme Court on its own initiative without request by the Florida Bar or lawyers, to follow the lead of another state, added this to our admission of the bar.

To opposing parties and counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity and civility, not only in court but also in all written and oral communications. That is something our lawyers must abide by because the Florida Supreme Court was very disturbed by the lack of civility being shown by lawyers in and outside of courtrooms. 

I will stop there with regard to Mr. Kaimowitz.

So I think that this could be a topic for a discussion but certainly not at a regular meeting. I could provide you with additional information. I suggest maybe at a workshop or at a retreat but it will consume at least an hour or two of your time and I will be happy to do that and help you in that regard.

Thank you.

Mayor:   Actually, Mr. Radson didn’t want to perhaps divulge the source of this information about the other elected body but actually that is the city of Orlando that does not televise their — what we would call citizen comment.

We refer to it as general appearances, but I think it is clear that we do have people that are not here to speak to us about items of interest to the city or even to something that is going on in another country  but they are here really to perform for — to be on tv.

And I think that that does change the tenor of comments.

Sometimes I am surprised that a particular individual would make comments, you know — would jump to comments about someone’s anatomy or whatever because it is so out of character for that individual to date and then I guess for others, I think well, okay, that’s — pretty used to that person saying things like that at this point.

So, you know, it is something that is not always — citizens’ speech is not something that is easy to police and so I have been lax about doing so except to correct the record when things are factually incorrect as best I can. Commissioner Poe, did you have anything additional you wanted to say in response to the information Mr. Radson has given?

Poe:   No, and I think it is at the mayor’s discretion but looks like you put together some information that I see no reason we shouldn’t at least look at and discuss. I mean, it is good to look over our procedures from time to time anyway and sometimes we kind of move along, you know, and kind of do things the way we have done them and want to have a discussion about them, is that still the best way to go about performing the city business.  But I just more than anything want this to be a forum that is built on respect and, you know, mutual respect because I think that the — the ability to honestly disagree is the most important facet of the democratic process. But when that devolves into name-calling and assault on people’s character and belittling of individuals, it takes away from the dignity and the import of what we’re trying to do here in good faith.

And, you know, so I, you know, don’t know how to achieve that. I don’t think that you can – I don’t think you can pass an ordinance or rule that makes people better citizens, you know?

But I think I — you know, it is important for us to acknowledge when the process is not being carried out in good faith and because it diminishes us as a community.

And I think that is more than anything that I wanted to acknowledge that and not allow it to go unchecked.

Mayor:   Thank you, commissioner Poe.

Mr. Radson, you have anything in addition to that? Commissioner Bottcher?

Bottcher:   Thank you Mr. Mayor and I want to thank Commissioner Poe for bringing this up. I think it is probably long overdue, Commissioner Chase and I have been up here on the dais for less than a year and a half and I am not sure what kind of background or life experience you would need to have to not feel some of that — feel badly about some of the bad vibes and kind of comments that come from citizen comment because I think we all ran for office for some very common reasons.  We wanted to do good by our community, do good by our friends and neighbors and the other citizens we serve, and to take that abuse, which really is what it is, verbal assault and abuse, is the reason that there are a lot of really wonderful talented terrific people out there who don’t are — run for office.

They watch this on TV or perhaps at one time or another they have been in the audience and witnessed commissioners sitting up here — and it does occur at the county level, too — kind of take this stuff and it is inappropriate and it does keep otherwise very good qualified people from running for office because they say well, I could never deal with that and it is a shame.  Because it really does in essence have the opposite effect on what we all would like to think as carrying out democratic beliefs of our community and our country.

I am glad Mr. Radson is going to provide us with the information he cited. I think this is time for us to have this kind of discussion because from a national level on down, all levels of government, you know, the discourse just gets uglier and uglier, and uglier and perhaps at least on the local level, if we start talking about it and people who are consistently engaging in it — you know, the occasional, very frustrated citizen when, it is out of character, you know, you kind of — I have to think perhaps he is probably at home going, you know, that perhaps I was a little heavy-handed, I probably shouldn’t have done it and it probably will not happen again coming from him. But the people consistently doing this, there is a group of people who pat them on the back and telling them yeah, go get ’em so there are some people giving them positive reinforcement for this and that is not right.

So if we can elevate this discussion on a more public level and I don’t know if the Gainesville Sun or any other news outlet might start a dialogue on this or allow us to continue a dialogue on this. But generally social pressure, peer pressure can influence people’s behavior. So I am hoping s that will be some outcome of this.  I don’t know if at our retreat next week , at the end we can continue to talk about it.  I don’t know when we finish our retreat would be a good time to talk about it. I assume there will be some citizens in attendance at the retreat. I hope there will be some citizens in attendance and maybe that would be a good time for us to talk about it and get citizen input on that at that time, too and with that, I will conclude, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor:   Thank you, Commissioner Bottcher. I think that part of — there are those that are taking liberties in a number of different ways, I think, during citizen comment and using foul language and abusive language toward commissioners and fellow citizens, is one way that is expressed.

Another way it is expressed is putting forth just frankly false information.  And I think one contributes to the other and frankly I would have to say that really in terms of at least the editorial page of the Gainesville Sun has not been that faithful to factual information at times so hopefully they could start by, I guess, being more faithful to the facts in that regard.

Commissioner Hinson-Rawls?

Hinson-Rawls:   Yes, Mr. Mayor, at one point I heard Mr. Venzke who is in the audience now say “point of order” and I know there is a point of order process.
So isn’t that the way to end that conversation or —

Mayor:   Well, point of order means they are actually out of order except for a member of the city commission to make because that is a parliamentary action and something to be done by a member of the group, the legislative body and that would be a member of the city commission.

And point of order just essentially means, you know, referring to whether the activities that at any point in time are keeping with Roberts Rules of order or in keeping with the rules of the city commission. So if the rules of the city commission prescribe certain codes with respect to language improprieties, then that would apply.

If you were to be hearing language you felt was inappropriate and you would say Mr. Mayor, point of order and you would be in order and I should respond to that inquiry basically.

Hinson-Rawls:   I see, okay.

Mayor:   so yeah, that is how that works.

Frankly, I just can’t imagine  saying some of the things that some individuals say here. I just — I mean, it is really just a hard concept for me to grasp, that people would come forward and behave the way they do.  And I think it actually reflects badly upon the individual that is behaving in that manner.

It is not contributing to – it is actually detracting from the ability to have a productive discussion and when they are insults to the level at which they are, especially here in the auditorium but also outside the auditorium, it pulverized matters to the point where it makes it difficult for, say, Commissioner Chase and I to have a discussion on something we may have a good faith agreement about because it makes things so tense in the community and I think that is unfortunate.

I think that, you know, to be able to reach some accommodation on an issue is inhibited by this kind of atmosphere.

Did you conclude, commissioner?

Hinson-Rawls:   Yes.