By Zach Hagadone
Civility governing interactions between the public and staff at City Hall, as well as decorum at public meetings, are at the core of a new ordinance approved July 5 by the Sandpoint City Council.
Patterned on a similar measure in Norwalk, Calif., Sandpoint’s ordinance is “intended to dispel disruptive behavior during meetings,” City Attorney Andy Doman told councilors.
As the statement of purpose reads: “This section seeks to promote mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct among city of Sandpoint elected officials, employees and members of the public. It is not intended to deprive any person of his or her right to freedom of expression or free speech, but only to maintain, to the extent possible and reasonable, a safe, productive and harassment-free workplace for city staff, and a safe and non-threatening environment for visitors, customers and other members of the public.”
Introduced at the May 17 meeting but tabled until July 5 to hammer out some additional details and fine-tune language, Doman said at the time, “The ordinance was not created in a vacuum,” researching other ordinances in different municipalities, and based on discussions that took place before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic — a period when public meetings took on an increasing, and continuing, rancorous tone.
Doman said it is also based on decided case law, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals related to Norwalk’s ordinance and a case decided by the Idaho Supreme Court related to trespassing a citizen from government premises due to disruptive or otherwise threatening and abusive behavior.
“Citizens have an enormous First Amendment right … however, a city council meeting is still just that: A governmental process with a governmental purpose,” Doman said at the May 17 meeting, adding that the Idaho Supreme Court ruling held that disruption in a facility owned by the public is not protected speech.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that not just on paper … our employees have a safe and worry-free workplace environment,” he said in May.
According to the adopted ordinance, “Any city of Sandpoint official or employee who is directly affected by or witnesses behavior that disrupts or threatens to disrupt city of Sandpoint government operations may direct the person engaging in such behavior to immediately remove themselves from the premises or otherwise cease such behavior.”
Out-of-bounds behavior includes, according to the text of the ordinance:
• Insulting, demeaning, intimidating, or offensive remarks or other communications;
• Harassment or intimidation of any city of Sandpoint staff, elected official or other member of the public;
• Willful destruction or damage of property;
• Conduct that threatens or provokes a violent reaction;
• Continually disruptive behavior in the lobbies, offices or meeting rooms of Sandpoint City Hall or other facilities where official city business is being conducted by city officials or staff;
• Repetitive calls, visits or correspondence to city offices or staff with an associated pattern of disruptive behavior, including verbal or physical aggression and/or threats, regarding an issue for which city officials or staff has already provided pertinent information or instructions.
The decorum sections of the ordinance are essentially a codification of longstanding practices governing behavior at meetings, including prohibitions on addressing individual members of the government body or staff; abusive or aggressive comments; asking questions of members or staff; approaching the dais; and engaging in clapping, stamping feet, shouting and other disruptive actions.
Individuals who are alleged to have violated those rules will be provided with a written statement signed by the mayor or council president outlining the grounds for the action, resulting in trespass from city facilities and/or city meetings for up to one year.
However, a person who has been trespassed under the ordinance may still access city premises for emergency purposes and personnel, and are only allowed to contact employees by U.S. mail, email “or other means acceptable to the city.” In addition, they may still attend meetings via Zoom.
Resisting removal or an order to leave the premises or cease disruptive behavior could carry a misdemeanor charge.
Appeals of the trespass order may be made within 10 days of receipt of the written notice, and handled in different ways.
Returning before the council on July 5 with a final draft of the ordinance, Doman outlined the verbiage separating the administrative and legislative appeals processes of the new code section. In the case of violations of civil behavior between City Hall workers and the public, the appeal would be reviewed administratively by the mayor, as the chief presiding officer. With issues arising from decorum at meetings, an appeal would be addressed by the City Council and its president, who is currently Councilor Kate McAlister.
Some residents testified in May that the ordinance would do more harm than good.
Former-Sandpoint Mayor Carrie Logan, who also served terms on the City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission, said that the city’s long tradition of robust public engagement “has suffered in recent years.”
“The ordinance before you tonight further limits opportunities for public involvement,” she said in May, later calling it “very chilling.”
“Or is the city just tired of people talking about issues and challenging staff decisions?” she said. “Don’t get your feelings hurt if the speakers don’t agree with you.”
Citing the often free-for-all nature of many recent Bonner County commissioners meetings — which have included numerous occasions in which Chairman Steve Bradshaw has recessed or adjourned proceedings amid disruptive behavior by attendees — development consultant and former-Sandpoint City Planner Jeremy Grimm in May said, “there’s clearly need for clear rules of engagement” for public discourse, but still worried that the city’s reach may extend its grasp with regards to notions of “redundancy” of communications being considered improper behavior.
Longtime resident Rebecca Holland, who is a regular attendee of city meetings and has been an outspoken critic of a number of City Hall decisions, alleged that the ordinance is being leveraged to “control opposition.”
She stated that she’d been trespassed from City Hall proceedings for three months following an incident earlier in the spring when it was alleged she’d been disruptive by clapping her hands, but has denied the allegation and — at the July 5 meeting — stated that she’d been “flipped off” by an unidentified staff member while leaving the council chambers in April after testifying.
Councilor Joel Aispuro said at the May meeting that elected officials are “free game” and, “When it comes to name calling or anything like that; for me, it is what it is. … It may be annoying, but not harassment.”
However, Councilor Andy Groat said in May that the need for the new code section is real.
“[T]he behavior of some of our community members, it does not make me proud to live here,” he said, later adding, “We have mean, awful, cruel people in our community that abuse and harass employees … and it is not OK.”
“The only reason we’re talking about this is that the conduct of our public has not made me proud,” Groat said.
Mayor Shelby Rognstad in May said that one example of the need for such an ordinance stemmed from the number of public records requests coming into City Hall.
“What we’re seeing now is that public records requests can be weaponized,” he said, going on to say that City Clerk Melissa Ward spends about half her 60-to-75 hours of work per week processing those requests.
“If you’re using city policy and city procedures simply for the apparently sole purpose of overworking staff because you think that that’s funny or something — I don’t know why anyone would do that,” he said.
Councilor Deb Ruehle cast the lone dissenting vote July 5 on a procedural motion to suspend three separate readings of the ordinance, saying it was important to do so because of the measure’s potential effect on citizens’ First Amendment rights. Aispuro was absent. Otherwise, the ordinance passed with unanimous support.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal