Rowena Holmes came to be heard. The crowd did not want to listen.
At a Minneapolis City Council public hearing on Aug. 1, Holmes offered condolences to the family of Thurman Blevins, a black man fatally shot by police. But she wanted to remind the chambers that a scared North Sider had called 911 that day after seeing a man firing off a gun.
At this, the crowd began jeering at Holmes, who’s worked nearly three decades as a liaison between north Minneapolis and police. “You’re a disgrace!” one heckler shouted at her.
Andrew Johnson, the council member chairing the meeting, hammered the gavel and pleaded for others to respect Holmes’ allotted time. They did not.
Maintaining order in meetings has become a struggle for the new City Council. It has created a dilemma for a council majority brought to power on a progressive wave, putting former activists in the difficult position of having to hush their constituents just to get through the agenda.
Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, among the five newly elected members this year, said although he is happy with increased civic participation, he’s concerned about the disorder at council meetings.
“If we make too much of a habit of doing impromptu sessions, then we are not giving people equal opportunity to speak,” he said.
In these tense moments, elected officials have been assailed by sometimes vulgar and racially charged insults, such as when a woman shouted for them to show some courage and accused Council Member Abdi Warsame of “working for the master.”
Even those testifying at public hearings have found themselves shouted down while speaking, but council members have hesitated to do more than calling recesses or begging for cooperation.
“They’re afraid of their own shadow,” said Joe Tamburino, chair of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, who was frustrated with the council after being ridiculed while speaking at a public meeting. “They think that if they impose order and even constructively criticize someone they’ll be politically lambasted.”
Interruptions occurred several times over the last couple of weeks, as council members discussed housing options for the homeless encampment that sprang up over the summer at Hiawatha and Franklin avenues.
Alejandro Avina was among those who lost his temper. In the middle of proceedings, he stood from his seat and accused the council members of ignoring the safety of his kids and community by proposing to relocate the encampment next to two charter schools.
Avina held his hands over his head as he left the council meeting shouting. Council members ultimately decided the following week to relocate the homeless camp to a different place. But before they could make that decision, a woman took over the lectern at the meeting and demanded action on her eviction problem, which wasn’t on the agenda.
In an interview, Council President Lisa Bender said council members need to be more deliberate about in telling constituents that they won’t be allowed to show up at any meeting at any time and expect to speak publicly. “And I don’t think that’s happening,” she said.
Holmes did not come to the City Council that day to talk about Blevins.
The Council had invited the public to speak on a proposal to cede some of the mayor’s power over police, and Holmes thought the change was unfair, considering the department was under the new leadership of a well-respected black chief who opposed it.
In an interview, Holmes said the council should have done more to quell the unruly crowd that day.
“If you know people are going to be upset, you make a statement when people come into the room, and say, ‘If you disrupt people, you will be asked to leave,’ ” she said. “You don’t let a small group of people hijack the testimonies of others.”
The council does have options. The chair can bang the gavel, clear the room or ask security to eject those refusing to follow the rules.
At the meeting on the police charter amendment, Johnson called a recess but resisted exercising his full authority, fearing it would cause more harm than good, he said.
“We’re not going to order the family of Thurman Blevins forcibly dragged out of the room in front of the cameras,” Johnson said. “Obviously they’re frustrated, they’re upset. I think that’s understandable given the grief and anger they’re experiencing over the loss of a loved one.”
Suspending the rules
The council can also choose to hear out the crowd.
Even when there’s no hearing scheduled, council members can suspend their rules with a two-thirds majority vote and allow for public comment. This has happened several times this year.
This option comes with a cost, Bender said. It halts the meeting and can stop a key vote. It also skips the step of notifying the public in advance that there will be the opportunity to speak, she said. “We’re really truly only getting one viewpoint,” she said.
On several occasions in recent weeks, Bender has led votes against suspending rules.
One of these took place Sept. 21. As the City Council convened to discuss the relocation of the encampment, community members holding signs lined up at the lectern.
Council Member Alondra Cano asked to suspend the rules and let them speak, and Bender quickly objected. “The reason we have our rules is to ensure we have time to complete all of the business of the city,” she said. The motion to allow the public to speak failed by one vote.
The next week, before a critical vote on choosing a site for the encampment, a group approached the lectern demanding to be heard. One woman said she was facing imminent eviction as a consequence of the city stripping the rental license from her landlord, Stephen Frenz.
Several council members said they would talk to her privately after the vote, but they did not have time to deal with her problem and still make the emergency vote on the encampment.
The woman refused to leave, and she continued talking loudly and interrupting as Bender attempted to move on with the meeting. Bender banged the gavel.
“I’m literally telling you we can’t hear you right now,” she said.
Diversity on the dais
Interruptions aside, several on the council say they welcome the intense civic engagement.
“People have a right to air their grievances and to speak to public officials in a good manner,” Warsame said.
Ellison said it’s a reflection of the new council makeup. “People see this council as being more transparent, more committed to a transparency and community input,” he said.
The diversity of the new council, of which five of the 13 council members are people of color, may also be contributing to a more welcoming atmosphere for some residents.
“We need people of color engaged,” Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said.
Avina, an operations manager at Aurora Charter School, said he’d never attended a council meeting before last month. The potential relocation of the encampment next to the school, he said, compelled him to come. Avina said he wasn’t fully aware about the rules of the meeting and how the council conducted its business.
But when the council initially endorsed the relocation of the encampment next to the school, Avina felt the council was disregarding the community’s concerns.
“When I did the outburst,” he said in an interview few days later, “it was out of character for me to do stuff like that.”