There has been some discussion recently about what sort of decorum is desired or required during city council meetings. Particular concern has been expressed about what kind of public expression is allowed and whether this can take the form of hand-held signs or other displays (vocal or non-vocal) by members of the public.
In what's become a mini-term paper on the subject, here's what I understand about the issue, based on information gathered from the Revised Code of Washington (Chap 42.30 ("Open Public Meetings Act"), the City of Anacortes Resolution #1374 ("Enacting Procedures to Clarify and Direct City Council Responsibility, Rules, and Meeting Procedures"), and notes taken at the summer seminar at the Association of WA Cities.
This certainly is not the end of the discussion, and I hope that I receive more enlightenment from the readers of this blog.
& Orderly Conduct
Anacortes Resolution #1374 states, "The presiding ofﬁcer (mayor/mayor-protem) shall preserve strict order and decorum at all regular and special meetings of the city council, and shall state all questions coming before the council, provide opportunity for discussion from the ﬂoor at his or her discretion where not speciﬁcally required by ordinance or statutes, announce all decisions of the council, and decide all questions of order. "(1)
"Unless otherwise stated in this chapter, or unless in conﬂict with state law, the mayor shall have the sole discretion to preserve order, to control the manner of debate among the council, and to decide all' questions of order which are not speciﬁcally addressed in this chapter." (2)
Anacortes Resolution #1374 goes on to state, "In the event that any meeting is interrupted by a group or groups of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible and order cannot be restored by the removal of individuals who are interrupting the meeting, the members of the governing body conducting the meeting may order the meeting room cleared and continue in session or may adjourn the meeting and reconvene at another location selected by majority vote of the members. In such a session, final disposition may be taken only on matters appearing on the agenda. Representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section. Nothing in this section shall prohibit the governing body from establishing a procedure for readmitting an individual or individuals not responsible for disturbing the orderly conduct of the meeting." (3)
However, there seems to be limitations on the presiding officer's discretion in this matter. The Supreme Court of Washington ruled, in "In re Recall of Davis," that a board has the discretion to order the removal of a party who is disrupting a public meeting. If, however, the board exercised this discretion in an unreasonable manner, the court also concluded that the board's actions may be sufficient grounds to justify recalling the members of the board. Such action could be considered misfeasance because the board members engaged in "wrongful conduct that . . . interfere[d] with the performance of official duty"-the board's duty to allow citizens ' to have access to board meetings.'
At the same time the Court ruled that the Open Public Meetings Act does not purport to grant citizens the right to interrupt meetings as they see fit; rather, citizens are granted a privilege to be present during public meetings so that they can remain informed of an agency's actions. (See "In re Recall of Davis," http://www.mrsc.org/mc/courts/slip/802190maj.htm)
Right to Speak
Public Meetings: Although the Open Public Meetings Act gives the public the right to attend meetings, the public has no statutory right to speak at meetings. However, as a practical and policy matter, city, county, and special district governing bodies generally provide the public some opportunity to speak at meetings. (4)
Public Hearings: "Although a public hearing is also a public meeting, the main purpose of most public hearings is to obtain public testimony or comment. A public hearing may occur as part of a regular or special meeting, or it may be the sole purpose of a special meeting, with no other matters addressed. An "open record hearing" under 1995 regulatory reform legislation (chapter 36.70B RCW) is a public hearing, while a "closed record appeal" is a public meeting." (5)
And, again, from City of Anacortes Resolution # 1374, Section 6:
"A. In matters not involving public hearings, the council will welcome, at appropriate points on the agenda, information, questions or comments from the public, pertinent to the matters under discussion at the Study Session, but not testimony on an item which may reasonably come before council for a public hearing at some future date.
"B. If the agenda item is one requiring a public hearing, or is a meeting at which the public may address the city council, the following provisions of this subsection shall apply:
1. Secure Permission. Any person desiring to address the council shall ﬁrst secure the permission of the mayor.
2. Manner of Addressing Council - Time Limit. Each person addressing the council shall stand and shall give his or her name and address for the record. The mayor may limit testimony to three minutes. All remarks shall be made to the council as a body and not to any individual member and shall be pertinent to the subject matter at hand. As time allows, additional time may be allowed an individual or group, after everyone else has spoken.
3. Spokesman for Group of Persons. In order to expedite matters and to avoid repetitious presentation, delay or interruption of the orderly business of the council, whenever any group of persons wishes to address the council on the same subject matter, it shall be proper for the mayor to request that a spokesman be chosen by the group to address the council and, in case additional members wish to testify, to limit the number of persons addressing the council.
4. After Motion. After a motion has been made or a public hearing has been closed, no member of the public shall address the council from the audience on the matter under consideration." (5)
As a footnote to this issue, it seems that in the case of controversial legislative issues (as opposed to quasi-judicial land-use issues), the community would be better served if we could have a more thoughtful public process before the subject becomes part of a public hearing in Council Chambers. Public hearings before the Council don't allow for much in the way of an exchange of ideas. Questions are often asked, but seldom are answers forthcoming.
Perhaps a small group process (much like the Anacortes Futures Project) would provide more opportunities to find a consensus or Third Way. This would certainly take additional time, and I'm not clear on what the exact process would be, but I am fairly positive that this would be one means of arriving at legislation that would have stronger support in the community.
(1) City of Anacortes Resolution # 1374, Section 5.B.
(2) COA Resolution #1374, Section 5.6.A
(3) RCW 42.30.050
(4) Municipal Research & Services Center of Washington, "The Open Public Meetings Act"
(5) Municipal Research & Services Center of Washington, "Public Hearings: When and How to Hold Them"
(6) COA Resolution #1374, Section 6
I placed a PDF of the City of Anacortes Resolution #1374 in a DropBox. It should be available <<here>>.