As campaign season nears, tensions are rising over public access to television time and other use of civic time and space.
Lloyd Erbaugh had barely gotten rolling before the chair intervened.
"OK, OK, you're done!" said Scott County commissioner Tom Wolf, banging his gavel. "This isn't going to be the forum for endorsing people or denouncing people."
The three men whom Erbaugh was about to tear into voted to deny him the chance. And the moment will echo for months, because all three face opponents this fall.
"You're changing 'open forum' into something else, just like that?" asks Brent Lawrence, Wolf's opponent in the November election. "That is monumental."
But he concedes that no one is dying to see a parade of speakers lining up - at a meeting that is supposed to be devoted to the public's business - to sound off on their own political opinions.
Indeed a range of civic leaders across the south metro agree that it is a delicate task to preserve freedom of speech without letting public events and public spaces turn into a mess.
That includes political signs scarring public rights of way. It includes allowing the Fourth of July parade to turn into a nonstop political advertisement. It includes a new breed of social media that can curdle into snide potshots.
All of it heats up in campaign season, many agree.
"Usually the problems happen during campaign time," said Farmington Mayor Todd Larson, who ran into his own kerfuffle recently over public comment time. "Candidates in the past have used 'citizen comment' periods to get up and personally attack other council members. That's not appropriate. I try and limit that as much as I can."
If board meetings were allowed to turn into campaign advertisements, said Scott County Commissioner Joe Wagner, who voted with Wolf, "the closer you got to the election the more and more vehement it would be. Otherwise educated, smart people would let emotions run wild. We can't do that. It would be like, 'Who has the last say? When does the rebuttal stop?' It's a can of worms."
As for the charge that the board is restricting free speech, he added:
"What about the BBQ Days parade in Belle Plaine? They felt there were too many politicians and one day just said, 'No more politicians in the parade!' None! Isn't that restricting free speech? I looked at that and said, 'If no one can do that, that's fair. At least they aren't saying, 'Some can, some can't.'"
Er ... actually, it's kind of true that some can, some can't.
"I do get to be in it, myself," admitted Belle Plaine Mayor Tim Lies, "because I'm the mayor, even though I'm a candidate this year, too. This policy started quite a few years ago, and I recall it having to do with all the stickers plastered around town and the literature blowing about. Other candidates do still walk the parade route beforehand, passing out literature."
Each town has its own culture around televised public comments, Lies said, with some being more eventful than others.
In his city, "very rarely does anyone take to the mike. But I don't put any restrictions on, although once in a while I will ask someone to keep it brief. I need to rely on my own instinct as to whether a person is bringing a reasonable thing forward to the city of Belle Plaine. It needs to be the business of the city. It's a business meeting of the council."
Careful - feelings at stake
Make no mistake: these are sensitive issues.
It's hard to believe that vast viewing audiences gather for public-access channel broadcasts featuring such sizzling agenda items as Introduction to New Employees. But public officials hear enough people mention seeing a meeting that they are convinced there's an audience listening and watching.
Even though everyone denied it was about concealing dissent, Edina found itself in hot water with citizens last year when a new city manager proposed switching open forum to an off-camera, before-the-meeting setting. "For some folks it is intimidating" to be televised, Scott Neal explained. The other side of that same coin: it places John or Jane Doe momentarily on the same footing as elected officials.
Issues affecting broadcast TV, and the later webcasts of the same material, also apply to other times and places.
The unauthorized sticking of political signs onto public rights of way with thousands of passing motorists, for instance, may be more visible than any TV intervention -- while involving the same basic concept.
Cities and counties often have pickup truck beds full of wildcat signs they've yanked from the ground - signs for dating services and the like. If they didn't, every thoroughfare would look like a paper Las Vegas.
"There were four giant [political] signs at 140th and Cedar," Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland said last fall as that city talked of cracking down on such signs, including her own more discreet versions. "They went over the top. It was like having a billboard, and we don't allow billboards in Apple Valley."
Social media meanwhile are changing the whole ecosystem of politics. New vehicles such as Facebook and Twitter allow folks in the peanut gallery to jump onstage whenever they like, including on a city's own media platform.
Shakopee has kept a careful eye on things like using a Facebook post on a city site to promote one's own business.
By chance, the very next meeting after "OK, OK, you're done" in Scott County was devoted in part to social media: to plans for the county to become unusual among counties (cities do this more often) in promoting interactive social media. These media, staff explained, "give everyone a voice."
Commissioner Dave Menden, one of the three who agreed to keep campaigning out of public comment time during campaign season, spoke in this setting of the need to "control" it, via carefully considered policies.
But many agree it's a hallmark of the emerging communications landscape that control is becoming harder and harder to exert. Indeed throughout the discussion a coffee cup sat silently on the conference table bearing this thought:
"THE QUESTION ISN'T WHO IS GOING TO LET ME; IT'S WHO IS GOING TO STOP ME" -- AYN RAND
David Peterson • 952-746-3285