City Council to public: Shut up!
Took only two years for the “reformers” to get frustrated serving the public…
Council proposes extreme cut in time for public speakers
Hoboken citizens’ right to speak at council meetings will be sliced to a bare minimum if Peter Cunningham and Carol Marsh get their way.
The self-proclaimed “reformers” are co-sponsoring a resolution to take away your ability to speak and ask questions about individual resolutions on the City Council agenda. The Council President and Vice President also want to change the rules to give them more power to shut down voices of dissent, and unilaterally allow longer comments from those who support them. The proposals would allow the Zimmer Team to publicly silence their opposition in ways Former Mayors Dave Roberts and Anthony Russo never dared to attempt.
Would end public comments on specific resolutions
There are 41 resolutions on this week’s unusually heavy meeting agenda. Buried at #39 is a “Resolution adopting revised rules for procedures for council of the City of Hoboken.”
Under the present rules – any member of the public can sign up to speak for 5 minutes on this (and any) resolution. If there are other resolutions they feel the need to comment on – or inquire about – they get 5 minutes per resolution to do it. Now that Zimmer and company are in charge they no longer feel the need to hear from the public on each agenda item. Cunningham and Marsh want to cap public comment at 5 minutes per person for the entire list of resolutions.
Can you comment on every resolution in 5 minutes?
All resolutions are listed on a so-called “Consent Agenda.” Today, if a taxpayer wants to put their two cents in, they can sign up with the resolution number and it’s pulled for public discussion. The long standing rule being stricken by the Zimmer Majority states:
- “Any citizen who wishes to be heard on resolutions… shall be permitted to address the council prior to action on the matters.”
The new Cunningham/Marsh rule says:
- “The public shall not have the right to remove a matter from the consent agenda” and “There shall be no entitlement on the part of the public to engage in dialog” (with the council.)
Public speaking opportunities cut down to 2 per meeting
This means instead of getting multiple chances to weigh in on multiple items at the specific time the council is actually discussing them, the public would be given one blanket, out-of-order chance to speak on any-and-all agenda items, and another, separate chance to speak after the voting is over.
New Presidential powers to censor public comments
The proposed new rule also gives the Council President:
- “Discretion to cut off any repetitive, irrelevant, or excessive public comments.”
This gives wide leeway to cut off dissent. If two or more people oppose a Zimmer initiative, Cunningham could rule them out of order and cut them off on grounds their comments are repetitive, irrelevant or excessive.
Here comes that “Decorum” word again
Under “Decorum,” the new rule says members of the public “shall refrain from making personal, impertinent, slanderous, or profane remarks to any member of the council (and) the administration.”
After the jump you’ll find Hoboken411 reader Hobodave’s original call to arms regarding a similar resolution two years ago. That resolution failed amid public outcry. What will happen this time with a new Mayor and her majority seeking even greater power to squelch the public?
Ridiculous changes designed to cut public participation
The proposed rules say meetings should end by 11pm and that the President can cut off public comment to meet that goal. Rule XV says public comment may be limited to one hour of the meeting. At 5 minutes each that could mean only 12 citizens get to speak. If the Zimmer team expects organized opposition all they would have to do is get 12 supporters to speak for 5 minutes each before dissenting comment could be told “Sorry! Times up for public comment tonight. After all, it’s in the rules!”
The resolution will be on the agenda tomorrow night. Sign up to speak out, WHILE YOU STILL CAN. You can always comment below in Hoboken’s most vibrant, diverse (and by far most popular) public forum!
(see resolution from 2008 – after the break…)
3/19/2008 City Response:
Hoboken Corporation Counsel Steve Kleinman has this response to the worried reader:
This morning, I came across your story regarding the City Council’s proposed new Rules of Procedure. In the story, you cite a reader who suggests that the rule governing the public’s decorum at Council meetings is some sort of “stealth attack” on the public’s right to speak. I can certainly understand this concern, which is why I think it is important that your readers accurately understand the proposed rule and what it means. I think if they do, they will understand that the rule does not inhibit legitimate speech or debate in any way, shape or form.
Most importantly, the story fails to cite the entire rule, and thus does not tell the whole story. The part that was not cited requires that before the Council can take any action whatsoever against a speaker, the speech must “disrupt, disturb, or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of any Council meeting.” Under this standard, it would be improper and inappropriate for the Council to rule speech out of order simply because a Council member disagrees with it, or because a speaker employs words the Council does not like. The Rule simply provides a tool for the Council to take limited, appropriate action against an individual who, due to obviously inappropriate conduct, materially prevents the Council from accomplishing the people’s business. Those of you who regularly watch City Council meetings surely can understand why such a rule might become necessary.
Also, your readers should be aware that the language of the Rule is taken verbatim from the leading court case on the subject nationwide, White v.
City of Norwalk, 900 F.2d 1421 (9th Cir. 1990), in which a Federal Court of Appeals found that identical language was constitutional and proper.
Obviously, the proposed Rule is at this point, just a proposal and the Council will determine whether to adopt it or not. But I hope that your readers are comforted by the fact that whatever rule the Council adopts tonight, you will continue to be free to criticize the City and its officials at Council meetings to your heart’s content.
The agenda for tonight’s Hoboken City Council meeting looks rather light, and will not do a comprehensive preview today. You can see the agenda here.
Most of the items are either boring, or don’t have enough information attached (usual council tactic). There’s also a chance the “Recycling Tax” that the city is trying to impose on bar and restaurants may not even make it to first reading today, because nobody has seen it yet.
However, there is one decent point of interest, and it’s the city’s attempt to “change the rules” at council meetings, in an effort to restrict your ability to speak. (pages 10 through 20)
One Hoboken411 reader (“hobodave”) had posted a comment earlier, and I feel it deserves it’s own thread:
City Hall wants to control your speech
“I wanted to make those in Hoboken concerned with safeguarding our right to speak at city council meetings, aware of a ‘stealth attack’ on freedom of speech hidden in a new resolution slated to be approved at tonight’s council meeting.
This serious threat to our right to speak out in opposition to city government or elected officials at Hoboken City Council meetings, is contained in a new resolution called RESOLUTION ADOPTING NEW RULES OF PROCEDURE FOR THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF HOBOKEN, and the dangerously restrictive language is buried in the section titled “decorum.”
For members of the city council, “RULE XV” “Decorum: (a) By Council Members.” states: “While the Council is in session, the members must preserve order and decorum …”
On the other hand for members of the public, we are confronted with the following language: “Decorum: (b) By the Public. A member of the public who addresses the Council shall not make personal, impertinent, slanderous or profane remarks to any member of the Council, staff or general public. Any person who makes such remarks … shall, at the discretion of the presiding officer or a majority of the Council, be barred from further audience before the Council during that meeting.” [!!]
(The council members are apparently not held to the same standard as to lack of “decorum” as are members of the public, who can be dragged out of the meeting room, and possibly arrested, by “such member or members of the Police Department as the Chief may designate, [who] shall be the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Council meeting.” [“RULE XVI” “Enforcement of Decorum:”])
Of course the words “personal, impertinent and slanderous,” in particular, are subject to wide interpretation, and have been historically been used in various venues, by those in positions of authority, to attempt to stifle statements of dissent or opposition from the public. The additional extreme threat of embedding these calculatedly-vague terms into the written language of an ordinance, comes from giving supposedly legal authority to the council president’s personal “discretion” to instantly muzzle any remarks he or she decides to. There is not even a provision for a member of the public to appeal the council President’s decision! Censorship of our speech would now be more easily done with the legal “handle” and cover of claiming that something we say violates “decorum.”
So now it will be in violation of a city ordinance to be “impertinent” to the city council? It is interesting to note, by the way, that the most common dictionary example I found of the usage of the word impertinent (as synonymous with “impudent”) is that it is “impertinent of a child to lecture a grownup,” and a child “should be disciplined for his impertinence!” Is it the council’s intention to imply that speakers from the public are like children who need to be disciplined? I submit that it is the city council that would be impertinent to the people of Hoboken by passing an ordinance containing such authoritarian, demeaning and potentially repressive language.
Everyone who believes in defending the right of the people to speak out on important issues should try to be at the council meeting on Wednesday and let our voices be heard during the discussion of this resolution. Let as many people as possible know that their freedom of speech rights are being threatened, and they should let their councilperson know, by phone or at the meeting, that they oppose the passage of this resolution as it is now written.
Note additionally that in “RULE XIV” “Manner in Which the Public May Address the Council – Time Limits:” the “Presiding Officer” (i.e. the council President) is given complete “discretion” to decide who will be allowed to go beyond the time limit: “(d) … Any speaker addressing the Council during this public comment period will be limited to five (5) minutes unless the presiding officer, in his or her discretion, decides that more time should be allotted to the speaker.” [!!]”