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Richmond City Council Okays Proposal to Consider Cracking Down on Meeting Disruptors

During a characteristically disruptive meeting Tuesday night, the Richmond City Council voted to have city staffers explore possible ways to curb the unruly remarks that frequently interrupt council meetings.
 
Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, an openly gay woman who has been the subject of vulgar, sometimes homophobic attacks from members of the public at meetings, proposed the item asking City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller and police Chief Chris Magnus to study different policies the council could adopt to crack down on disruptions.
 
The council voted 6 to 1 in favor of the proposal, with Councilman Corky Booze dissenting. The vote came a week after a shouting match between Beckles and city council candidate Rev. Kenneth Davis that was captured on cellphone video and widely circulated after last week's council meeting.

Davis, who Mayor Gayle McLaughlin at one point had escorted from the meeting for being disruptive, twice played audio of the fight. Beckles has said Davis and another community member cornered her, while Davis said the councilwoman lashed out at him, and he was only reacting.
 
Since then, and on Tuesday night, several residents have called for Beckles to step down while others have rallied to her defense.
 
"She has been the target of relentless homophobic and misogynistic attacks in these chambers and if she speaks out against it once or twice, she gets blamed," said city Planning Commissioner Marilyn Langlois. "The harassment of our vice mayor has got to stop," Langlois said. "Let's show some respect."
 
Beckles told the audience that the proposal was not about her but was intended to create a less hostile environment in the council chambers.
 
"This chamber becomes so toxic and so hostile that you can feel it through the television sets," she said. "This prevents people from participating, and that's a violation of their free speech and their ability to participate in our democratic process."
 
The city attorney, who wrote a seven-page memo addressing Beckles' proposal, said Tuesday night that city governments typically have few legal options when it comes to limiting free speech.
 
"Irrelevant attacks are out of order but the government has to be really careful about prohibiting those," Goodmiller said. "The citizens have an absolute right to get up and criticize their public officials."
 
He also advised the council against pursuing the option of banning individuals from council meetings for six-month periods.
 
"Our memo specifically addresses that point, banning future attendance, and concludes it is not legally permissible," he said. Booze noted that elected officials should be prepared to take criticism from the public.
 
"You chose to be elected so you have to take what the public has to say," he said. Other council members disagreed.
 
"Hate speech has no place in the public square," Councilman Jael Myrick said.

During the 4.5-hour meeting, the mayor called for several recesses due to disruptions from other council members and pounded the gavel when one speaker hurled insults at the council.
 
As is increasingly customary during the City Council meetings, council members repeatedly interrupted one another to postpone or overturn items proposed by their colleagues.

—By Bay City News

Don Gosney July 17, 2014 at 05:34 PM
Of course, there is far more to this story than what the Bay City News is reporting here. This story goes back a very long way and is deeply faceted. It’s very easy to point a finger at an individual Councilmember when, in reality there is plenty of blame to go around. There are no innocents in this story. For instance, when the Vice Mayor swears across the room (using the F word) at another Councilmember—and does this in public—that might be perceived as toxic. When the Vice Mayor posts Facebook posts denying her actions—witnessed by so many other people—all while she is supposed to be hearing a budget report that might save the jobs of 75-100 city workers—that might be of concern to the public. And when she sends a toxic email to Charles Smith while she’s hearing another budget report, and includes the N word and twice uses the word “Cracka” to refer to white people, that might seem as toxic, too. But she’s not alone in her actions. As I wrote, there’s plenty of blame to go around. What should concern people is not so much the innocuous proposal delineated in the agenda packet but in what the Vice Mayor has said, and written in newspaper articles, blogs and emails about wanting to deny citizens their right to participate in government meetings for half of a year as punishment for saying something that she or the Mayor disagrees with. Keep in mind that according to their own rules, only the Mayor gets to decide what is disruptive. Just as she did a couple of weeks back, she took exception to the message that one speaker calmly spoke and had him ejected from the Council Chambers. Which was more disruptive—what he said or her reaction to what he said? Just as I pointed out on Tuesday night, the courts may agree with me three to four years down the road that the Mayor had no right to deny me my rights to participate in public meetings, but in the mean time I’ve been ejected from the meetings, cited by the police and possibly punished by a judge (like the previous speaker was). I may win the court settlement later on but in the mean time I’ve been silenced—and all because one person has been given the authority to play God over our freedom of speech. This reminds me so much of what the Republicans started doing a few years back by setting up fenced in “Free Speech Zones” on the other side of town. They placed police around these FSZs and proudly boasted how they were protecting our right to speak.

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