(The Center Square) – Spokane City Council members on Monday suspended a new policy rule that bars audience members from remaining standing in the council chambers during proceedings. The council also canceled the evening’s open forum session, even though 17 individuals had signed up to speak.
The disjointed proceedings came a week after council members approved new policy rules for audience behavior. The changes included expanding an open forum from 15 to 20 individuals, but moving the comment period from the beginning of each meeting to the end, allowing the council to address its legislative agenda first.
The rule changes also said citizen comments should focus on city business and that audience members should remain seated during the proceedings, which is common in most jurisdictions. But since mid-October, 10 to 20 individuals who regularly attend weekly meetings – initially to denounce a council resolution supporting Israel following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack – have routinely stood in silent support of any speaker agreeing with their collective viewpoints, but standing and turning their backs to any speakers with whom they disagree.
Council President Betsy Wilkerson reiterated the rules at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, but one or more audience members continued to stand in the chambers or aisleways.
“It’s against our council rules, no standing in the chamber,” Wilkerson said at one point. “We respectfully ask that you take your seat, and there’s no standing in the aisles per our fire code.”
Continued non-compliance by the individuals prompted the council to recess twice for a couple minutes.
“At this point, this is disrupting the entire proceeding and preventing us from moving forward ….” Councilmember Michael Cathcart said after the initial return. “So, I believe we need to take some sort of action to rectify this.”
Wilkerson added, “… unfortunately, to our other citizens who are here to testify on city business, it just delays taking action on important matters that affect everyone in Spokane.”
Councilmember Paul Dillon suggested suspending the rule against standing for the night, talking later with individuals challenging it, and conferring with the city’s legal counsel to “sort out some of the inconsistencies around these actions.”
Councilmember Zack Zappone put the rule suspension into a motion approved by the council. Fellow Councilmember Jonathan Bingle offered reluctant support, saying, “I’m not so sure that this is actually the best course of action for us.”
“The reason why we put this rule into place was because people were using it as an intimidation tactic,” said Bingle, calling such behavior rude.
“I don’t think it’s following what we’ve all been taught, which is the golden rule, treating others the way you want to be treated,” Bingle continued. “And so I’m disappointed that we’re having to do it, but if it helps us get through tonight I guess I’ll support it.”
Zappone said he has heard “from a lot of people (who) say they’re too scared to come down or have their kids come down and testify. And I think it would be unfortunate to continue to have that environment here at city council.”
“We need some time to talk with community members about this,” said Zappone. “We all believe in free speech and the importance of having the voice of everyone heard up here, but … as we can see, there’s now people standing very close to the dais in a way that can be intimidating other people.”
Cathcart agreed, saying, “I will not have my wife and child come down in this environment. It’s very concerning to me.” He said the council needs rules that “ensure the protection” of all audience members wanting to participate.
“And that requires some level of respect,” Cathcart said. “Maybe not for us. That’s clear: there is no respect for us. But for the audience members out there, that needs to be the case.”
The council also supported Zappone’s motion to cancel Monday’s open forum. However, audience members were allowed to speak on specific legislative matters and some used that opportunity to opine on the forum’s suspension.
“The council should be ashamed of itself … limiting free speech is a problem,” said Justice Forral, one of the regular weekly commenters.
Wilkerson said she recognizes people’s free speech, but added, “A small group does not speak for 220,000 people who are all citizens of Spokane. I would like to see … others who have not come into this space to make (their) comments to us instead of a small group that comes on a regular basis. Which is their right, but that group I don’t believe speaks for the entire city of Spokane.”