Members of the public will only be allowed to speak at Spokane City Council’s open forum once a month after the city’s legislative branch voted 5-2 last night to change its rules.
Shortly after taking office in 2011, Council President Ben Stuckart put an open forum period at the beginning and end of City Council meetings. During these forums, members of the public have three minutes to tell council what’s on their mind. But complaints have arisen that these forums have become bizarre and hostile.
Last night’s open forum was no exception. Alan McDowell, a council regular, noted complaints that council members are on their phones while people speak during open forum. “Tonight, I’m going to really show you how you use a phone,” he said before making a phone call to his former shop teacher while addressing council.
“Mr. Wood I am down here at City Council,” he said. “I was previously a student (2002) in your woodshop class. I’m down at council talking about a new project for your students to make stained plaque for the [Spokane Police Department] for the police chief’s office that says ‘no grab ass at SPD; the citizens are watching and paying for your mistakes.’”
He then mentioned state Rep. Matt Shea getting into a “Terminator
Alfredo Llamedo, a local activist, used open forum to accuse Jackie Murray, the sponsor of a controversial initiative petition, of bigotry and xenophobia before Stuckart scolded him for using personal attacks. George McGrath, a civic gadfly who speaks at almost every city council and infamous for his use of the phrase "Bridge to Hookerville," brought up the topic of abortion.
“This is America the land of murder, the land of abortion where it’s women’s rights,” he said. “Sixty million babies killed by Planned Parenthood, and you sit here and say it’s the woman’s right.... I say that’s garbage.”
He then said not nearly as many Japanese, “Asiatics,” Italians and Germans were killed in WWII.
Stuckart originally added the open forum periods to get more public feedback. But instead, he says, the same people have shown up every week. He introduced the rules change in hopes of getting a wider variety of perspectives.
“This [rules change] was brought forward by myself because I knocked on 8,000 doors this summer, and contrary to the streets being the biggest complaint I got this summer, it was actually open forum,” said Stuckart who was reelected in November.
Rick "Harpman Hatter" Bocook, who shows up regularly to council meetings to complain about Spokane’s sit-lie law and businesses washing away sidewalk chalk art, told the council people have the right to be negative.
“You gotta be tough,” he said. “You gotta toughen up, you know? You took the oath to uphold the Constitution.”
Llamedo stood before the council in silence. He then listed countries such as Burma, North Korea, Turkmenistan and others that don’t have freedom of speech.
‘It’s kind of a funny thing to me that throughout history the very first thing that any tyrant who has existed and gone into power has done has [been to] curtail freedom of speech,” said McGrath. “Curtail freedom of speech: what you can say, when you can say it and how you can say it. Do we have a tyrant here at City Council? Actions speak louder than words.”
When it was time for council to weigh in, Councilman Jon Snyder, the longest serving member, said that before Stuckart, there was only one open forum at the end of council meetings, meaning that people had to wait sometimes hours before they spoke. He pointed out that Spokane Valley City Council has open forum once a month and that the Spokane Board of County Commissioners meets in the middle of the day.
“We have a pretty liberal open forum policy here,” he said. “And we’ve made it more liberal since council president [came on]. What we’re talking about here tonight is just creating a little more room for folks beyond the regulars, and don’t get me wrong, I love all our regulars.”
Councilwoman Karen Stratton, considered part of a liberal coalition that dominates council, said she couldn’t support the rules change.
“As hard as it gets some nights, as personal as it gets some nights, I believe that people have the right to participate at city council meetings,” she said.
Councilman Mike Fagan, the council’s lone conservative, said that the timing of the rules change struck him as odd. He pointed at that last year council passed an ordinance that critics suspected was targeted at Planned Parenthood protesters
and that McGrath had been routinely bringing up the issue of abortion.
“So I’m thinking over the last week…why did this debate come up?” he said. “Could it be that this council might be pandering on behalf of Planned Parenthood to shut down George McGrath and his comments he’s been delivering pretty consistently for the last four months every week? I’m thinking, naw, not this council. We’d never do anything like that.”
“In my mind I’m being paid to sit up here and take the praise as well as take the criticism, and I do that happily,” said Fagan. If anything, he said, he’d make open forum longer.