The City Council’s rules and regulations subcommittee met last week to discuss several proposed rule changes aimed at improving civility and the level of discourse in the council chambers.
District 1 Councilor Todd Taylor proposed several additions to rules governing speaking among the councilors as well as the public speaking portion of the council meetings.
His first proposal adds language to rule number 8, which states how long and how many times a councilor can speak on a given topic. Taylor is seeking to add language stating that “no councilor shall use language that is profane or is used to offend or defame another councilor.”
Furthermore, “if a councilor breaks this rule and there is subsequent objection, the offending councilor must apologize and have the comments taken down or the offending councilor will be prevented from speaking for the remainder of the meeting as much as possible.”
Taylor also asks in the proposed change that the councilors refer to each other not by name, but as the councilor from a specific district or the councilor at large.
In addition, if a councilor does mention another councilor by name, Taylor proposed that the councilor who was mentioned by name would have an opportunity to respond, even if they have already spoken.
District 8 Councilor Calvin Brown said he didn’t necessarily see the need to add the language to the council rules, adding that it would only add to potential back and forth between councilors distracting from the issue at hand.
“This is taken from Robert’s Rules of Orders,” said Taylor. “These are basic rules of decorum that are pretty much universally recognized.”
As for letting councilors respond when their names are mentioned, Taylor said it is a matter of fairness and adherence to the rules.
During the meeting, several councilors brought up an executive session meeting that was held last term to address issues of decorum in the council chambers.
“The reason we had that meeting was because a lot of the rules were being violated and we stated there needed to be some responsibility and those rules needed to be enforced, not that we needed to change the rules,” said Brown.
Brown added that he wanted Taylor to produce a copy of the language from Robert’s Rules of Order that Taylor said he used for the addition to the council rule.
Taylor said the request was irrelevant.
“I am proposing a change, so nobody needs to have a copy,” said Taylor. “If you want to get Robert’s Rules of Order and look it up, you can … or any of the other parliamentarian books out there, or look at the U.S. House of Representatives or other deliberative bodies. A number of these are readily accessible on the internet.”
An additional rule change proposal by Taylor governing public speaking generated a healthy amount of debate by the subcommittee members and Council President Roy Avellaneda.
Taylor asked that new language be added stating that “no person shall use language that is profane, insulting, or threatens violence. Furthermore, defamatory or slanderous language may not be used during public speaking.”
If any councilor objects to any such comments in violation of the rule, Taylor proposed that the speaker must retract the comments or lose the right to publicly comment for that meeting.
“This is going in the same vein as the previous addition, we are trying to bring a basic level of decorum to this chamber,” said Taylor. “These are basic rules that almost every deliberative body has as far as public speaking goes. It’s not a very high bar.”
District 5 Councilor Judith Garcia, the chair of the rules and regulations subcommittee, said she was concerned the rule changes would limit public speaking and about who would police the comments made by the public.
“It’s giving way too much power to the council to allow public comment to be in their favor,” said Garcia. “I think public speakers should be able to say whatever they want because it is their first amendment right.”
Garcia said public speaking gives citizens an opportunity to hold the council accountable and that she would not want to put limits on public speaking.
“To try to put in language and try to put in proposals to silence the public is unconstitutional,” said Brown.
Avellaneda said he agreed with some of what Taylor was proposing.
“We should have a sense of decorum,” said Avellaneda, adding that residents should also have the opportunity to criticize the council.
Avellaneda said he agreed with adding language that prevents someone from using profanity, defamatory language, or racist comments during public speaking.
However, he said he did have concerns about policing what language would be considered slanderous or libelous.
“I’m a Libertarian, so I take civil liberties very seriously, especially free speech, because I think that free speech has been under assault recently,” said Taylor. “That being said, the councilor mentioned that this is unconstitutional, it is not unconstitutional. There are limits to free speech and there has clearly been a precedent by the Supreme Court for years and years.”
As for defamatory and slanderous language, Taylor said it would be up to the council as a whole to decide that.
“(If) somebody gets up and says something that’s blatantly untrue and meant to hurt somebody and meant with malice, that should not be allowed,” said Taylor. “I don’t care about prattling on about free speech rights, there are slander laws and there are libel laws. This is where the government has restricted speech, and rightly so.
“For this body to bring up free speech issues, this is the furthest thing from restricting free speech, this is restricting inflammatory speech.”
The proposed council rule changes will be brought before the full council at a future meeting.