For two months, Mayor Alcock has banned public commenters from saying the names of individual Councilors, but is he overstepping his authority?
The May 3rd, 2017 Geneva City Council meeting included an agenda item referred to by residents as “Resolution 17.” The resolution was a lengthy, legalese-soaked affirmation by the City that they had done everything right in handling the Geneva Foundry situation, and included a section regarding public comment during City Council meetings.
Thankfully, after intense and pointed criticisms were leveled by numerous residents during public comment, Resolution 17 was defeated.
One sentence located almost at the very end of Resolution 17 was quite concerning in relation to free speech, and read:
“…the Presiding Officer will not allow the public to state personal attacks on any City Council or staff”
Common sense would define “personal attacks” as statements substituting abusive language or comments unrelated to specific job performance. However, in light of the specific criticisms leveled against former DPW Director Gordon Eddington for his mishandling of (and subsequent lying about) the Geneva Foundry disaster, the sudden appearance of this proposed rule worried some residents that it would be used to silence criticism of Eddington (or other City Councilors).
During the meeting, it was emphasized by City Manager Matt Horn and several Councilors that Resolution 17’s section on public comment did not include any new rules; rather, it simply re-stated the existing guidelines in the current ‘Rules and Procedures for Geneva City Council’ adopted in 2013. But this, like many other pieces of information coming from City Hall as of late, is simply untrue.
The Real Rules And Procedures
One of the guidelines from the current “Rules and Procedures for Geneva City Council” requires that:
“All remarks shall be addressed to City Council as a whole and not to any individual member thereof.”
This rule is perfectly reasonable. City Council is convening as an elected body during their monthly meeting, and therefore should be addressed as a single body.
However, there is nothing in the Rules and Procedures pertaining to “personal attacks.” So why would Council and Horn insist that they were just reminding everyone of the rules that were already established while trying to pass Resolution 17?
During Horn’s laughable and fallacy-driven PowerPoint presentation on Resolution 17, he offered his own shifty interpretation of the original rule:
“This rule was put in place to limit, or to eliminate I should say, personal attacks on City Councilors, to discourage the idea that, or the practice of having conversations from the dais to the podium, and to generally, for Council to receive as a body the comments from the public.”
This sounds like a sensible approach to managing public comment. It’s true that Council should be addressed as a whole, and public comment is not the venue for residents to converse with individual Councilors. However, this rule does not prohibit commenters from criticizing the actions of individual Councilors, as long as the criticisms are offered to Council as a body. To create an additional rule in the Resolution prohibiting “personal attacks” without an explicit definition of the phrase opens the door to interpretation by the Presiding Officer as to what constitutes a “personal attack.” This kind of vague rule could conceivably be used to squelch unpleasant commentary from the unwashed masses.
Again, the Resolution was defeated, but Mayor Alcock has since taken it upon himself to enforce a new rule that he apparently conjured out of thin air in an attempt to limit comments about specific Councilors.
Beginning at the May City Council meeting, Alcock began interrupting (and sometimes using his gavel to interrupt) public commenters who dared to say Gordon Eddington’s name. The Mayor did not offer any explanation for this new rule. He just started doing it.
During the June 7 2017 City Council meeting, two commenters who were criticizing Eddington were stopped each time they said his name. Once, Councilor Camera addressed the Mayor and pointed out that the speaker was only using Eddington’s name in the third person while addressing all of Council, but the Mayor dismissed Camera’s statements. Later, when a group of Eddington’s friends and family offered public comments supporting him, the Mayor warned those commenters that they also could not utter Eddington’s name, resulting in those commenters referring to Eddington as “he” or “a certain City Councilor” or “City Council.”
In his attempt to look consistent and fair by enforcing his newly invented “rule” for all commenters, the Mayor turned the meeting into one of the more surreal moments in recent Council meeting memory (and there have been many).
Can The Mayor Even Do This?
In short, no he can’t. While the Presiding Officer is given the authority to prevent comments that he deems “disruptive,” and he might be able to argue that using the name of a specific Councilor while criticizing is “disrupting” the meeting, how would he explain prohibiting the naming of Councilors who are being complimented? If someone says, “Councilor Gramling is doing a great job,” that’s not disruptive in any conceivable way. In his ill-advised rush to show that he was enforcing his arbitrary “rule” in a consistent way, Alcock eliminated the only defense he would have for concocting it in the first place.
But technically, he can do it, if nobody objects. If the nine people we elected to represent us sit back and let it happen, Alcock will keep doing it, no matter how much embarrassment and consternation he causes. If the people of Geneva let it slide because it seems like only a minor offense in the area of free speech, Alcock will keep banging his gavel and scolding us and requiring us to adhere to his farcical “rule,” which most of us can see is an ill-conceived effort to protect the reputation of Gordon Eddington.
Click on the link at the top of this page to contact City Council and tell them that they need to object, vocally and publicly, to the Mayor’s belief that he can make up whatever kind of free speech-limiting rule that suits him.
You can also get yourself to the next City Council meeting at the Public Safety Building on July 11th at 7pm and tell Council what you think.