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Does council audience need to be disciplined?

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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I couldn’t help chuckling when I saw “decorum” at City Council Meetings listed on last week’s City Council’s agenda. After all, this isn’t the type of meeting where you have timeouts or audience members disciplined. And there are more important items to worry about in Lincoln, such as finding ways to keep residents safe from crime and our libraries open. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the decorum item placed by City Councilman Spencer Short wasn’t a laughing matter. Because you expect adults to be on their best behavior or at the very least, be polite, especially at public meetings. Since I don’t usually attend council meetings, I asked reporter Stephanie Dumm how rude audience members are at meetings. Aside from clapping when they like someone’s comments, the audience is usually quiet, The News Messenger reporter said. The only time she has seen audience members become disruptive was at the Oct. 26 meeting, when a Twelve Bridges resident asked the mayor what he would personally do if his child was raped by the sex offender living in a controversial transitional home. During the last council meeting, City Councilwoman Linda Stackpoole said one solution might be “police having the authority to remove them from the meeting.” Short suggested adopting a policy similar to Roseville’s that says, “everyone must be on their best behavior. If someone disrupts a meeting, they are given two warnings and then are ejected from the meeting by the police chief acting as sergeant-at-arms or a police officer.” The Roseville city manager’s staff answering the phone Friday wasn’t familiar with that law and suggested I call the city attorney. Roseville city attorney Brita Bayless said only one person has been removed from City Council meetings in 10 years. “It’s pretty common for local agencies to have meeting procedures for meetings,” Bayless said. “I’m only aware of one instance when someone was removed – someone wouldn’t take their seat when their time to speak had run out. The key thing is the mayor is allowed to maintain order and decorum so the meeting would proceed.” Lincoln City Manager Jim Estep said at last week’s City Council meeting that the city will bring back a similar policy to be reviewed by the council within a few meetings. City clerk Pat Avila will write the policy, then have department heads and the city attorney look at it before bringing it back to council, City Manager Jim Estep told me this week. Estep said that the decorum agenda item “wasn’t explained well. They only heard what they heard, it’s an extreme case we’re addressing, it’s not that we don’t like what audience is saying.” The agenda item, in Estep’s opinion, was “blown up more than it should be.” Our story, slugged online as “Council address bad behavior. Possible option is to remove disrespectful audience members,” received comments saying that council was interfering with freedom of speech and that council members are rude. That was not the intent of the agenda item, according to Estep. “The meeting before was getting rather contentious over the transitional house. I don’t think people understood that’s what Spencer was referring to, the people yelling from the back room about the sex offender (now gone),” Estep said. “We put it on the agenda so people could talk about it. When (Lincoln assistant director of development services) George Dellwo talked, people yelled rude things. Other audience members said they could smell alcohol on these rude people.” Creating a new policy is to have rules, Estep said, in place for handling audience disruptions. The Lincoln Municipal Code already has a decorum policy in place. Section 2.04.190 B. of the Lincoln Municipal Code reads: B. Other Persons. Any person making personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks, or who becomes boisterous while addressing the council, or who disrupts the meeting of the council, may be barred by the presiding officer from further audience before the council during that meeting, unless permission to continue is granted by majority vote of the council. (Ord. 308B, Sec. 5.5, 1976) Estep said that code is not specific in what to do with disruptive audience members. Whether a police officer takes on the meetings as part of a beat will be up to City Council. But our police are already stretched thin. Adding more responsibilities doesn’t make sense to me, especially when flare-ups by audience members are rare. “Typically, we don’t need an officer. But we’ll know when it’s a contentious item on the agenda,” Estep said. “Should we pay to have a police officer just in case or do we always want one? Those are things council will decide.”