Oak Harbor council tables free speech controversy
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
April 20, 2012 · Updated 2:21 PM
A dozen people came brandishing cheap sombreros and baseball caps, but Oak Harbor City Council members postponed the showdown over proper attire, free speech and parliamentary procedure.
Two Seattle TV news stations traveled to Oak Harbor Tuesday to interview people and cover the meeting at which the council was supposed to discuss Councilman Joel Servatius’ proposal to ban the wearing of hats at council meetings.
About 50 people attended the meeting. A number of people in the audience — most of whom are vocal critics of the current council — either wore or were carrying hats in protest of the proposed hat ban, which they feel would violate their free speech rights. Some citizens were also concerned about Councilman Rick Almberg’s proposal to move the public comment period to the end of the meeting, which they also view as an attempt to squelch free speech.
But nobody got a chance to speak on the issues. The council unanimously voted to table the proposals, even as Mayor Scott Dudley argued to allow the public to have their say first.
“I was frustrated, but I wasn’t the only one,” Dudley said after the meeting. “You have all these citizens who took time out of their schedules to come down to a council meeting and voice their concerns and the council won’t let them speak.”
Councilwoman Tara Hizon called for a five-minute break as the council was just beginning to take up the issues. Dudley claimed that she used the time to speak to Councilman Rick Almberg, then came back and made the motion to table the proposals until a special meeting.
“I guess they had their game plan,” Dudley said.
Hizon said the council should set aside an entire special meeting to discuss the issues of parliamentary procedure because of the high level of interest and the time it could take to hammer matters out. Almberg agreed, saying that the issues are “fairly complex.”
Dudley argued that the council should let members of the public speak before they take action, which is the usual procedure. But City Attorney Bill Hawkins said the council could preempt public comment by tabling the agenda items.
In the end, Hizon had to withdraw her motion, but Almberg motioned to table his proposals until a special meeting can be held. Councilman Jim Campbell agreed, pointing out that Councilman Danny Paggao was absent and arguing that the whole council should take up the important issues. The motion passed unanimously.
Servatius also motioned to table his proposals, which passed unanimously.
“Based on public feedback, I think it’s appropriate that we do schedule a workshop to make sure we are consistent with people’s First Amendment rights,” he said.
While the concerned citizens will get their chance to comment, many weren’t happy about the delay. Shane Hoffmire, sombrero-wearer and frequent commenter at council meetings, sees it as a conspiracy to muzzle the critics.
“It’s even more evidence that the old guard is alive and well and they want to silence the people,” he said.
Servatius and Almberg made their controversial proposals at the end of the last meeting in an effort to bring dignity and efficiency to the sessions. Audience members made comments at a couple meetings last month that some felt were inappropriate and should have been shut down by the mayor, who runs the meetings. Almberg also suggested that the council and mayor aren’t abiding by parliamentary procedure.
Servatius, a new member of the council, proposed the hat ban as a way to encourage a sense of respect at the meetings. It’s not an idea that’s likely to go far since Hawkins has already said hats are protected speech. Servatius also suggested that the council vote with a show of hands since it can be difficult to count voice-only voting.
In addition to changing the public comment period, Almberg also proposed setting an end time for council meetings and scheduling a time for the city attorney to give a presentation about parliamentary procedure and council rules.
In an interview, Dudley said a special meeting to deal with the proposals will likely be scheduled to take place within the next couple of months. He said council also wants to have a workshop with an expert on parliamentary procedure.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.