Tuesday, May 28, 2024

New city code in the works

Staff Writer | May 27, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — A proposed city ordinance regarding inappropriate behavior during public comment was tabled last week to give city staff a chance to finetune the details.

Last week's lengthy city council meeting went over many topics and issues including a presentation of a city code to add rules of civility and decorum at public meetings with consequences should those rules be broken.

City attorney Andrew Doman told the council the policy change was not created in a “vacuum.” Instead, it is a result of several factors such as years of ongoing conversation between several parties including the mayor, council members, and city staff.

“We researched several other ordinances that were enacted and other provisions that were enacted in different municipalities to come up with the language that we included with this ordinance,” Doman said.

Focusing on the language included in the proposed ordinance and addressing the issue of impeding freedom of speech. Doman said the research that went into this document included a reference to case law found both in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Idaho Supreme Court.

“Briefly, the city of Norwalk case dealt with speakers at meetings. So those Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the ordinance similar to the one that's before you tonight, and decided that did not violate the individual's first human rights to free speech,” Doman said.

Diving into the detail of the ordinance Doman told the council of the purpose of this ordinance is to ensure all parties present and speaking at public meetings have the freedom to do safely and everyone is treated equally with respect.

“It is not intended to deprive any person of his or her right to freedom of expression or free speech, but only to maintain to the extent possible and reasonable, a safe, productive, and healthy harassment, free workplace for city staff, and a safe and non-threatening environment for visitors, customers and other members of the public,” Doman said.

The policy Doman includes prohibitions against abusive behavior both in public meetings and civil conduct in public facilities such as City Hall. Listing prohibitions, Doman reiterated they are not intended to curb free speech but to guard against inappropriate behavior as the primary focus.

“We need to make sure that everybody is safe and free from any harassment, including our employees, who in many cases, they're the front or the front people for the city. They are the people that are interacted with most by the public,” Doman said.

The policy also addresses the behavior of those who attend and speak at public meetings, specifying that they should refrain from destroying property and harassing or intimidating others, among others. Behaviors deemed to be disruptive could be subject to a warning or being barred from City Hall and city meetings.

While supportive of protecting city staff and the overall policy, council members said they want to ensure residents have the freedom to speak at council meetings, noting the difference between questioning them and harassing staff. Councilman Justin Dick sought clarity on the specifics of those who are trespassed, how the public would be made aware of the officer on duty, and more. These issues of language, procedures, and aftermath became the first topics that led to this ordinance being tabled for the time being.

Finer details of the policy also prompted comments from several residents.

Among them, is Molly O’Reilly, who said that while she feels the ordinance is necessary to ensure no one is harassed or treated with abusive behavior, she also has several issues with the proposed document.

“Let me just go over a few small things [including] things that happen inside a particular meeting. Why put all those details in the ordinance? Why not have the ordinance say, the council shall set the rules and they shall be enforced as?” O’Reilly said. “I would ask questions, what triggered this? I don't know. But now, I can't ask a question. And I know you're not going to answer me while I'm here. But I understand that your legal force has made sure this is legal. But I don't know why you're doing it. And as a citizen, I would like to know that.”

O’Reilly also expressed concern over appeals of possible violations, saying those who may be disabled or have an illness that prohibits one from writing or being able to attend the appeal meeting.

Others echoed O’Reilly’s comments in support of the policy, saying they had witnessed abusive behavior and threats, saying they wanted freedom of speech protected but hoped to have the rules enforced.

Councilman Andy Groat told O’Reilly that a steady decline in decorum prompted the move, but noted it has been in the pipeline for some time.

“The behavior of some of our community members is it does not make me proud to live here. The way that people have talked, communicated, and seen each other in the street, emails, and texts. It's whether we do this or something else. It needs to be brought to the light to our public that we have mean, awful, cruel people in our community that abuse and harass employees. Yes. Citizens? Yes, humans. Yes. And it is not OK,” Groat said “The only reason why we're talking about this is that the conduct of our public has not made me proud, I'm not going to speak for anybody else except for me. If this is my family, if these were my employees, and this was my working environment, I would not tolerate the behavior that I've seen or heard.”

The council ultimately decided to table the topic until the second council meeting to be held in June to give Doman time to address council and public concerns.