Oak Harbor councilman wants hats banned at meetings
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
April 6, 2012 · 10:57 AM
Tensions between the Oak Harbor City Council and the mayor escalated at the Tuesday night meeting as a couple of members tried to exert control over how meetings are run and how attendees attire their heads.
The two councilmen, however, may have inadvertently touched off a debate about free speech and inclusive governance.
“Anytime we talk about minimizing or limiting public comment, or saying what people can wear in public, that at least is concerning to me,” Mayor Scott Dudley warned at the end of the night’s meeting.
Councilmen Rick Almberg and Joel Servatius obviously weren’t happy about the mayor’s handling of the previous, freewheeling meeting, in which council members were harshly criticized by audience members and a former council members used the public comment period to criticize the chamber of commerce director by name. Almberg and Servatius pushed for closer adherence to parliamentary procedure and council rules, but also suggested several changes in an attempt to bring greater efficiency and dignity to the forum.
Servatius proposed a rule banning people from wearing hats at council meetings, saying it was a matter of respect. Already several citizens concerned about the First Amendment have announced they plan to wear hats to the next meeting in protest.
Servatius also interrupted the meeting at one point in an attempt to stop an audience member from videotaping. He thought that the council rules prohibited videotaping at meetings, but interim City Administrator Steve Powers told him a previous administration had looked into the issue and found that it’s allowed.
In addition, Servatius proposed that the council vote with a show of hands, noting that it can be difficult to keep score with voice votes.
Almberg criticized the mayor for allowing former councilman Paul Brewer to talk about an Earth Day activity at the Navy base during the comment period. Almberg said comments should be confined to city business.
Almberg requested that the city attorney provide a presentation about parliamentary procedures and council rules so that everyone has a better understanding of the proper conduct of the mayor, council members and public during meetings.
In addition, he suggested several changes to the council format, including, and most controversially, a proposal to move the open public comment period from the beginning to the end of the meeting. Ironically, Brewer was one of the council members who got the comment period placed at the beginning at the agenda ‚Äî¬†in order to encourage public participation ‚Äî many years ago.
Almberg’s other ideas may be more popular. He proposed setting a stop time to meetings at 9 p.m., unless extended by a majority vote, and an end to the standing committee reports.
At the end of the meeting, Almberg interrupted Dudley with a “point of order” after the mayor started criticizing the actions that would limit public comment. He said the mayor isn’t allowed to express an opinion, but is supposed to conduct meetings in an unbiased way, under the Sturgis Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure.
Ironically, Councilman Danny Paggao interjected that Almberg had himself failed to follow parliamentary procedure since he failed to address a point of order to the mayor.
City Attorney Bill Hawkins was asked address the issue of whether the mayor can express an opinion. He said the mayor isn’t supposed to give an opinion on any items during the regular agenda, but that it’s OK for him to talk about what he wants during the time set aside for mayor’s comments.
“In the past, we had no problem with the mayor weighing in on action taken by the council,” Dudley said.
By Wednesday afternoon, Hawkins had begun to research the many issues brought up in the council meetings. In an interview, he called the proposed hat ban “a nonstarter” because the wearing of a hat is obviously protected speech.
Hawkins said the council doesn’t have to allow a general public comment period, though public input must be taken during public hearings. It would be within the council’s right to move the comment period to the end or to abolish it altogether.
But censoring or monitoring what audience members say is another matter. While overtly political speech or campaigning would not be appropriate, Hawkins points out that the council spends a lot of time at the beginning of meetings hearing about things that aren’t related to city business, whether it’s Boy Scouts or the Irish Wildlife Society. He said it can be tough for a mayor to strictly monitor the speech of citizens.
Dudley, for example, said Brewer’s speech about Earth Day activities on the Navy base is city business since the Seaplane Base is within city boundaries.
Hawkins admitted he is a little concerned about calls for a strict adherence to parliamentary procedure. He pointed out that the council adopted Sturgis, which is more straight forward and easier to understand than Robert’s Rules of Order.
“When you adopt Sturgis, it does not mean you follow it blindly,” he said. “You should make it work for you. There is room for common sense and negotiation.”
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.