Saying they’ve seen an increase in personal attacks — including screaming, foul language and name-calling — directed at city staff and council members during meetings, officials are considering changing the rules concerning how the public can speak.
On the table is a resolution that would do away with allowing a person to speak for 10 minutes if he or she represents a group of 10 or more people. Citizens will still be allowed to speak for three minutes each, which has been the rule for decades, and that time can be extended at the discretion of the presiding chair. The change would only affect the citizen presentation portion at the end of each meeting.
Council members will consider the rule changes at Tuesday’s meeting.
Since January, name calling and swearing has become commonplace among some speakers who have come to address the council about police-related incidents, particularly the December arrest of Jacqueline Craig, a black woman, by a white officer. Some speakers have called Mayor Betsy Price the devil, accused council members and city employees of supporting slavery, and made repeated calls for City Manager David Cooke and Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald to be fired.
The personal attacks just shouldn’t happen.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
Price and the council members say they want to return civility to the public comments and believe taking away time when someone can grandstand could be the answer. They say disrespectful comments made during the past several months have hurt staff morale and turned residents off from attending council meetings at all.
“I have people tell me it’s just a waste (attending) and it’s embarrassing,” Price said. “Students are often there. They shouldn’t have to be exposed to that kind of talk, screaming and yelling. The personal attacks just shouldn’t happen.”
District 4 Councilman Cary Moon has been on the receiving end of some of the verbal attacks. He, though, has violated the council’s rule of conduct and spoken back to the speaker “when they have crossed the line.”
Moon said he can take the criticism, but he won’t stand for it when it’s aimed at city staff members.
“I don’t like it when they call our staff names and my colleagues names,” Moon said. “The citizen presentation is the citizen’s time to have their voice heard. We’re there to listen.”
But District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said she doesn’t support removing the 10-minute option, saying it would be “a great injustice” and that the council would be “stymieing” citizen voices “because we might not necessarily like what they have to say.”
She did agree that the rude language needs to end.
“This is a democracy,” Gray said. “It’s not the first time this has happened. It is the longest period it has happened,” she said of the outbursts. “Changing the time doesn’t fix” the issue of civility.
The Rev. Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Church in Fort Worth who has spoken for a group for 10 minutes, called the proposal a “knee-jerk reaction” but said he wasn’t surprised. He also said he is not discouraged by it and will not let it impede his group’s efforts.
“This mayor and council would rather try and curb our constitutional rights to express ourselves than work hard to solve these issues,” Bell said. “We’ll find another way. We’ll continue to make our point.”
Under the new rules, a group representative would still be allowed to talk for 10 minutes during a public hearing or a zoning case, which are held earlier on the agenda. Zoning cases are normally heard once a month.
Also, a new rule will be added stating the council’s commitment to conducting its business in a courteous, reasonable and respectful manner, and “any member of the public attending city council meetings shall observe the same rules of propriety, decorum and good conduct.”
I don’t like it when they call our staff names and my colleagues names.
Cary Moon, District 4 councilman
The new rules give the presiding officer more latitude to stop speakers when they’ve gone too far. It also gives more authority in removing speakers from the council chambers.
The council will discuss the resolution during its work session and vote at Tuesday night’s meeting. The new rules would take effect on Aug. 15.
The council’s rules of procedures were first adopted in 1960, but have been amended several times since. In 1960, there were no rules regarding citizen presentations. If a person wanted to address the council, the request was required a week in advance. But eight years later, the rules changed and a five-minute limit was started.
In 1976, language was added to allow an extension of an additional five minutes if the council agreed, according to the city secretary’s office. Four years later, the time limit was changed to three minutes for a person and the 10-minute option added. It was in 2001 when the 10-person requirement was added for a group representative.
District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan agrees changes need to be made, arguing that nothing is accomplished by anger.
“Obviously, folks are passionate,” said Jordan, who also has been singled out by speakers. “Personal attacks do not resolve issues. I’m totally respectful when I’m listening to folks. Our council is respectful.”