NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — A proposal in Narragansett to institute an ordinance setting “behavior guidelines” for town meetings drew rebukes from the ACLU of Rhode Island and from members of the public at Monday’s Town Council meeting before ultimately being voted down.
The vote came near the end of Monday’s hours-long council meeting. Council President Pro Tempore Jill Lawler was the only councilor to vote for the proposal, with Councilor Richard Lema abstaining. Voting against it were Council President Matthew Mannix and Councilors Patrick Murray and Jesse Pugh.
Lawler introduced the measure, which would have had the town solicitor draft an ordinance governing how attendees should conduct themselves at meetings.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to a point where we have to put this on,” Lawler said. “Recent behavior at town meetings has come to a point where it is very, very heated.”
Most of the heated discussion Lawler referred to has revolved around the town’s library, including a $400,000 cut to its budget for 2019-20 and efforts to sell the town-owned Belmont/IGA building, rather than convert it into a new library.
On the council, Pugh and Murray have emerged as supporters of the plan to turn the Belmont into a new library, and opposed the budget cut. Mannix, Lawler and Lema have argued that the Belmont plan is a bad deal for the town, and that a majority of voters sent them to the council to undo it.
For months, library supporters have regularly attended council meetings in large numbers, holding signs and lining up to speak at the lectern. When tempers often flared between the audience and the council, Police Chief Sean Corrigan — as the acting town manager — would sometimes interrupt and tell everyone to cool down.
Mannix has referred to vocal audience members as an “angry mob,” and at times Mannix has threatened to have police remove people from council chambers, though to date this has only happened once — when a woman was quietly escorted out after she suggested another public speaker was drunk.
Town Sergeant David Avedesian, a social studies teacher in North Kingstown, said there had been at most one removal of an attendee since his appointment almost three years ago. Any such ejections must be done by police and not the town sergeant, Avedesian said. He also could not name any instances of people making physical threats.
Speaking as a resident and a civics teacher, Avedesian said it’s important people have the right to say what they believe. He’d “never” be in favor of the proposed measure, he said.
“There’s a reason why amendment one is amendment one,” he said. “(The Founding Fathers) were willing to die for that cause.”
The ordinance would have been modeled on a similar law passed in Exeter Sept. 3.
According to that document, attendees cannot “delay or interrupt the proceedings or the peace,” or “disturb any member” of a town body while speaking, and “refusing to obey the orders” of the council or its president is prohibited. Violators can be ejected from the meeting by the town sergeant and prevented from attending future meetings, unless the council votes to allow it.
The Narragansett version also would have banned attendees from carrying “sticks” into council chambers. It did not specify what kinds of sticks would be prohibited.
Lawler said the ordinance would have preserved First Amendment rights and created a climate where people who have an opinion that differs from most in the audience could feel comfortable speaking.
“It’s been very difficult to do that,” she said. “The silent majority that has been talked about often does not show up at these meetings because they do not want to be ridiculed.”
Pugh took to Facebook Tuesday to explain his vote.
“It was important to publicly oppose the proposed ‘Decorum Ordinance,’” Pugh said. “Last night was proof that the freedoms we have must be defended if we wish to keep them.”
He also apologized, he said, for letting things get personal a few times during the meeting.
“Nobody comes to the Town Council meetings to watch councilors bicker and I will do my best to avoid that sort of behavior as we move forward,” Pugh said.
He also said Exeter was the only town in the state to pass such an ordinance, and did so only weeks ago.
“There’s no feedback, there’s no evidence of how things have gone,” he said.
An opinion on Narragansett’s proposal came over the weekend from the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The ACLU of Rhode Island believes that enactment of such an ordinance raises serious First Amendment concerns and weakens the role and purpose of having public comment at Town Council meetings,” ACLU Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown said in an Oct. 5 letter to the town.
“We recognize that the Council has the right to set reasonable restrictions on how the ‘open forum’ period of its meetings is conducted, such as limiting the amount of time people can speak, and certainly can prohibit disruptive behavior. However, the vague, open-ended and overly broad standards suggested for the proposed ordinance (and contained in the Exeter ordinance) can only undermine free speech rights.”
Brown urged the council to table the item.
“We are aware that there have been some very heated meetings and some very heated commentary at Council meetings this year,” he said. “We also realize that the only item before the Council on Monday is a recommendation to the Town Solicitor, and no specific ordinance is yet on the table. But even the consideration of such a proposal, as outlined in the memo provided the Council, sends the wrong message, and can only have a chilling effect on Narragansett residents and their willingness to speak their minds at the open forum sessions of Council meetings.”
Town Solicitor Mark Davis also weighed in on the proposal.
“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “Who has the right to speak, and what are the definitions...it’s a very difficult thing to marshal.”
The town’s general rules for speaking recommend residents conduct themselves “in an orderly and respectful fashion,” he said.
State Rep. Teresa Tanzi said the council is suffering from a lack of leadership.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” she said. “It takes restraint, poise, in order to prevent it going from where it is now. I hope that we can each reflect and take an honest account of how we behave as leaders in these public forums and try to bring that back.”