Home > Crank, Editorial > What’d you learn at the City Commission meeting?

What’d you learn at the City Commission meeting?

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CAUTION REMINDER: Traverse City City Commission to discuss and possibly vote on Street Food vending and Accessory Dwelling Units at tonight’s regular meeting.

7-pm at the Governmental Center on Boardman Ave. BYS (Bring your own snacks).  _

Gov. 101: Public comment is sacred

“You’re not hearing what I’m saying because you don’t want to hear.” ~ Elisa Barrett, at last week’s City Commission meeting.
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Kudos to the Record Eagle for yesterday’s article covering an uncomfortable episode that occurred at last Monday night’s Traverse City City Commission meeting. I’ve struggled with it ever since witnessing it. The article has a run down of the events in their article titled, Speaker threatened with arrest at city meeting. You may also watch it below or the full meeting here (UpNorthMedia–The incident in question happens at 1:33 mark).

In short, what happened was Elisa Barrett rose to make public comment about the Brown Bridge Trust Fund ballot proposal. She appeared to be attempting to tie the use of the trust fund to the dam removal project and her understanding of subsequent clean-up needed after last fall’s dam removal mishap. After about 50 seconds, Mayor Michael Estes reminded her to stay on issue. She pushed back, saying she was on issue and she was making a point. The Mayor didn’t agree, so instructed City Manager, Ben Bifoss to intervene, which he did by taking a recess and calling the police when Barrett continued to speak.

First, some questions. What can the police lawfully or unlawfully do? What can they arrest her for? Speaking during public comment? Being off message? Can they remove her for trespassing at public meeting in a public building? She wasn’t disrupting anything until she herself was disrupted. Even if calling the police is appropriate, is it worth disregarding the first amendment to simply have an efficient meeting?

In person, it was as Commissioner Mary Anne Moore expressed, “unpleasant” to witness. After a shaky start, Barrett appeared to be on topic or at least potentially getting there. View the scene below. What do you think?

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There’s a pattern here/At least he’s consistent

For anyone who has been to a commission meeting run by Mayor Estes, chances are that you’ve noticed that he has little patience for public comment. This isn’t the first time he has cut someone off instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt. To my knowledge, this is the first time he has had the police called. The pattern is disturbing, because it can easily be construed as using his seat to bully and intimidate people not to make public comment that is disagreeable.

People have a right to speak at a public meeting and unless they are disruptive, threatening, or impeding the orderly progress of the meeting don’t deserve to be threatened with arrest. To call the police because someone is slightly off topic is absurd. It certainly doesn’t create an atmosphere where the public feels invited to be engaged.

Unfortunately, the Mayor’s explanation is that he is simply being consistent. Well, consistently butting up against the public’s first amendment right to redress their government and generally leaving people feeling slightly more valued than if a sack of potatoes was speaking is not the consistency that should be enabled.

I get it–being an elected official is an unthankful job. You barely get paid. You work your behind off. You know things the general public may not know or understand. There are a lot of meetings and they sometimes run long. Even more so when the general public is long-winded. As well, you’re putting yourself out there. Elected, and appointed, officials are in a vulnerable position. You make decisions that keep you up at night. Is it too much to ask people to keep it brief and on message?

Still, the right to petition your government is fundamental and critical to encouraging public engagement. It rises above any immediate issue at hand, because it nurtures trust in government in the longterm. Episodes like this are an embarrassment for the community. Traverse City deserves better from our elected officials.

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Use the comment section below or through this page to send us a message, on any subject, anytime, anyhow.  Comments will be sent to author and potentially used in future posts. Please highlight whether you’d like you’re name published with your comment. 

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of writers previously published here or any of the organizations, committees, commissions or other affiliation the authors may belong to, unless so stated.

  1. June Thaden
    April 15, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Hi Gary,
    I’ve been away from town several weeks recently, and haven’t been reading your column as regularly as before. I’m sorry that you are no longer leaving Comments after the column. I really appreciated reading individual comments the way the person wrote his opinion. In a way, not still printing them after your blog is a way of restricting public comment.

    I am a fan, and appreciate very much your advocacy and blog. And I missed whatever caused your change in your policy. Did you have a lot of spam? If so, why not just state comments would be edited?

  2. Mary Ann Moore
    April 15, 2013 at 11:42 am

    You’re off on this one, Gary. Elisa was rude, loud and warned several times that she had to limit her remarks to the subject at hand, which was parks use of Brown Bridge Trust Fund monies. The mayor also informed her that she could speak on her subject at the open comment period at the end of the meeting. Estes has been very strict about the time limits on all speakers. Personally, I would have been a bit more lenient, but she was treated no differently than others by the mayor. Had she waited five to seven more minutes, she could have talked on any subject. I told this to Brian from the R.E. but, like you, he disagreed with me.

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  3. Mike
    April 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Well said Gary.

  4. April 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    I don’t think the First Amendment gives you the right to speak in any given context. Fox News refuses to give me a two-hour program to air my opinions. That has nothing to do with my first amendment rights. Neither do I think limits on public comment are a first amendment issue. It’s an open government issue. She is free to say whatever she wants, however she wants on her own time–that’s what the first amendment guarantees her. Being in a meeting means she’s subject to some limitations. Question is, are the rules they’re enforcing reasonable within the framework of open meetings law, not the first amendment.

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