Too many Minneapolis City Council meetings have been hijacked in recent months by shouting, unruly members of the public — a troubling lack of decorum that council members need to address.
As a recent Star Tribune news story reported, conducting orderly meetings has become more challenging for city leaders. That's in part because several new council members are former activists themselves who were elected to give more voice and access to groups that have felt marginalized.
It's understandable that certain issues generate emotional and sometimes angry public response, but there need to be boundaries. At an August public hearing, Rowena Holmes was shouted down after she reminded those in attendance that a frightened North Side resident had called 911 to report a man firing a gun before police responded and fatally shot Thurman Blevins. "You're a disgrace!" a heckler shouted at Holmes, who for years has worked as a liaison between north Minneapolis and police.
Municipal councils and other elected bodies have rules about when and how to receive public comments. That's because, in addition to hearing from city residents, they must conduct regular city business — and that can't be done efficiently if meetings devolve into screaming free-for-alls.
Allowing that behavior encourages more of it and makes city government appear chaotic and its leaders unable to lead. It's also unfair to those who follow public-comment rules. When an individual or group rudely shouts down council members and other citizens at City Hall, it can intimidate those who want to share a different view.
Joe Tamburino, chair of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, was critical of council members after he was ridiculed while speaking at a public meeting.
"They're afraid of their own shadow," he told a reporter. "They think that if they impose order and even constructively criticize someone, they'll be politically lambasted."
Unless they get control of their meetings, the disruptions could encourage the council to do more work outside of public view and, possibly, to violate open-meeting laws. In a twist, by trying to be more open, an elected body could eventually become less accessible.
Council President Lisa Bender told a reporter that citizens shouldn't be allowed to show up at any meeting at any time and expect to speak. And Jeremiah Ellison, the Fifth Ward council member who was elected last year and had been an activist himself, said although he is happy with increased civic participation, he's concerned about the disorder.
"If we make too much of a habit of doing impromptu sessions, then we are not giving people equal opportunity to speak," he said.
That's spot on, and those who can do something about it are council members themselves. They run the meetings, and they can and should call for order. If that doesn't work, they can clear the room or have security respectfully escort unruly people to the door. And in a preventive move, the council should be more selective about suspending its own rules and deciding to take testimony on the spot.
While there are times when that action may be necessary, it shouldn't be done on a regular basis. Taking public testimony without advance notice fails to give others an equal opportunity to weigh in on an issue.
Although citizens have a right to free speech and protest, shouting down and scaring off others is out of bounds. Ultimately, though, it's up to the council to control its own meetings. That's the minimum that constituents should expect from the people they elect to run city government.