Don Gosney: The Need to Restore Decorum

Don Gosney

blogimage.jpgOn the Richmond City Council agenda for April 1 Councilmember Butt has sponsored item H-1 which will address “disruptive” behavior.

The question we have before us is whether clapping and verbal signs of approval/disapproval are disruptive to our meetings, slow down the meetings or take something from the meetings.
At the meeting of March 18th, before the ejection of everyone from the Chambers—both the guilty and the innocent—there were 7 speakers who spoke under Public Forum.
The first five speakers were Antoine Cloid, Leonard Taylor, Naomi Williams, Wesley Ellis and Marcus Mitchell.
After each of them were finished speaking—AFTER they finished—and while the next speaker was coming to the dais, there was applause that totaled 18 seconds.
It was at that time that Councilmember Butt interrupted the speakers for 74 seconds—nearly four times as long as the clapping—to show his disrespect for them with his comment comparing the speakers to a talent contest.
This was followed by two more speakers—Margaret Hanlon Grady and Greg Feere—who had a total of 12 more seconds of clapping AFTER they had concluded their speaking.  
Even before the City Clerk could call the next batch of speakers, the Council spoke for nearly 12 minutes on whether to allow any signs of support for a speaker.  Councilmember Butt concluded this discussion by yelling at the public and the Council.  When the Mayor called for a recess and threw the public out of the public meeting, was it because the public was being disruptive or because Councilmember Butt was being disruptive?  Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
When discussing whether to allow the public to attend Council meetings, Councilmember Butt even argued against allowing the public back into the Chambers for fear that the public could not be controlled.
This concept of sending the public out into the lobby is reminiscent of the recent Winter Olympics where Russia set up a protest zone outside of the city where the people would be allowed to voice their displeasure.  We saw the same thing at recent Republican National Conventions where they set up fenced in “free speech zones” where protestors were relegated (as if free speech wasn’t allowed outside of the fenced in pens).
Vice Mayor Beckles even made comment about how well the public had it out in the lobby—as if she had ever been restricted as the public was.  It reminded me of when Councilmember Butt recently made a comment about the residents of Richmond’s public housing wanting maid service.
There were no chairs in the lobby for the nearly 200 members of the public who were booted from the Council Chambers. This meant that the sick, the infirm, the elderly and the handicapped all had to either stand or sit on the floor.  The lobby can’t hold half for the people that were sent there.  There is a monitor at one end of the lobby but even from half way back the public could hardly see it.  And there was virtually no audio so the public could follow what was being said.  Acoustically, the lobby is not made to hold that many people and still allow people to hear the limited audio coming from the ceiling speakers.  Yet Councilmember Butt, Mayor McLaughlin and Vice Mayor Beckles spoke that with the public outside of the Chambers, this was pretty much the same as allowing them to actually be in the Chambers—only better.  One of them even used the word “participate” to describe what the public would be doing in the lobby or outside in the plaza.
After nearly half an hour of recess and deliberation, the Council narrowly voted to allow the public to be a part of the public meeting of their City Council.
Altogether, the Council spent nearly 45 minutes in arguing against the clapping and the vocal signs of approval/disapproval—as compared to the grand total of 30 seconds of clapping after the speakers had concluded their speeches.
Who is really to blame for the disruption of these meetings—the public or members of the Council who disagree with the public?

Epilogue:  After a lengthy discussion by the members of the Council in which six of the seven members of the Council declared that they would not be supporting this resolution, listening to the testimony of many members of the public and a careful deliberation, Councilmember Butt chose not to even make a motion to allow his resolution to be voted upon.

Mayor McLaughlin subsequently made a motion that there be no restrictions made by the Council to clapping.  With Councilmember Butt abstaining, the motion passed.

Don Gosney, Richmond Resident

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