Can Belleville City Council meetings be civil?

News-DemocratNovember 28, 2013 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert in a 2013 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

— The Belleville City Council is working on ways to temper discourse among themselves and with residents at council meetings.

During the last few years, aldermen, residents and community leaders have noticed an increase in incivility at City Council meetings.

Aldermen have said they do not want to limit public participation in a way that keeps residents from addressing city leaders and airing grievances, but council members want to cut out the name calling and rude behavior.

And, they agree that public participation at a council meeting is not meant to be conducted in a debate or question-and-answer format. The forum for lengthy discussions are committee meetings.

Leading up to municipal election in April, verbal attacks by residents against council members escalated some public participation sessions lasted an hour or more.

Residents publicly called officials "thieves" and "Nazis," and sometimes interrupted aldermen even when public participation had ended.

City leaders also participated in the "incivility" at times, prompting community leaders from churches and Belleville Achieves Strength in Character -- a group that promotes positive character development throughout the city -- to speak at the meetings about respect.

In recent weeks, city leaders have reminded each other and residents who speak during public participation to be civil when comments get out of line.

During a council meeting this month, one alderman stood up for another, across party lines, when a resident said an alderwoman was "snarky."

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson objected to the resident's comment, and told the resident to address the council as a whole and not to target a specific person.

"You don't have to be calling anybody a name," Davidson said.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert asked the resident to keep things civil.

"Keep it straightforward, simple and civil," Eckert said.

How might public participation change?

Since October, the aldermanic Ordinance and Legal Review Committee, which meets monthly, has discussed various ways to make discourse with each other and residents more civil.

Committee members will continue their discussion during the Dec. 10 meeting and eventually propose guidelines to the full council.

Aldermen on the committee are Davidson, Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella, Ward 2 Alderman Melinda Hult and Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti. Ward 8 Alderman James Musgrove is the chairman.

The guidelines will explain how long residents are allowed to speak, what residents can talk about and what behavior is considered out of order, among other rules.

City ordinance currently limits public remarks to two minutes per speaker. Eckert, who serves as moderator at council meetings, tends to allow speakers three minutes.

The time limit rule was called into question during a July 2012 public hearing on the crime-free housing ordinance when Kinsella told an audience of about 50 people that each speaker would get three minutes to talk.

When Belleville resident Stan Bratzke, who spoke against the ordinance, surpassed the three-minute limit, Bratzke asked to have the time of those who attended the meeting but did not plan to speak.

Kinsella agreed to give Bratzke five minutes, but Bratzke continued to speak for more than 10 minutes.

Belleville City Attorney Garrett Hoerner told committee members that case law supports a three minute limit as reasonable and effective. He also said the council could use a redundancy rule, which would cut down on the number of repeated sentiments.

Another idea would be to allow certain speakers more time if they represent a group of people instead of having each person say the same thing.

None of the aldermen were in favor of making speakers write out questions and submit them to the council prior to the start of the meeting.

Most aldermen were against limiting residents to speaking only on topics listed on the agenda. They do want public participation comments to focus on city-related issues or issues the city can address.

What do civic leaders say?

Jerril Jones, president of the Center for Racial Harmony, believe that public officials and citizens have a mutual responsibility to treat each other with respect.

"If we just take a deep breath, we'll realize it's counterproductive to use inflammatory language," Jones said. "When we're having public discussions, the goal should be to reach solutions. Even when we're passionate about something, we shouldn't use language that is so inflammatory."

Public officials, especially, should not let differences get in the way of resolving problems for the city, Jones said.

Officials are not always going to agree, but they should speak to each other in a way that allows all sides to be heard so that everyone has a chance to consider others' positions.

Racial Harmony, a group that promotes understanding, cooperation and communication, played host to a forum in September 2012 on bringing civility to public discourse.

Those who attended the meeting signed a "civility pledge" that includes principles such as:

* "I will address my political adversaries as well as allies in a manner that recognizes their humanity first."

*"I will strive to serve as a calming influence when inflammatory situations threaten the ability to achieve solutions."

*"I will follow the tenet, 'Always professional, never personal.'"

During a February council meeting, the Rev. John L. Curry, pastor of Conqueror's Christian Center, said he was shocked at the blatant disrespect some residents had when addressing thosein public office.

Regardless of whether a resident supports a certain elected official, the resident should treat the person who currently holds office with dignity, Curry said.

"In order to make real change, you have to learn how to respect those you're wanting change from," Curry said. "Why would somebody want to respect you when you're calling them names? Why would somebody want to agree with you when you're talking to them like they're kids?"

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

Proposed civility rules

The Belleville City Council is considering these guidelines for public's participation during meetings and hearings:

* Announce civility rules before public participation starts.

* Post suggested civility rules on the door, microphone or by the sign-in sheet.

*Have speakers submit their name and question to the council before the meeting starts.

*Have participants form a queue leading up to the microphone.

* Participants must address council as a whole instead of targeting statements toward an individual.

* Limit what participants talk about only to topics listed on the agenda.

*Allow participants to speak for up to three minutes. A participant could speak for longer if representing a group in lieu of individual speakers expressing same sentiments.

* Have a timer with three colored lights: green for go, yellow for wrap up and red for stop.

*Have the moderator maintain order instead of answering questions.

*Immediately say someone is 'out of order' if speaker calls someone a bad name.

* Prevent speakers from intimidating other speakers.

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