A new lottery system will be in place when the Laramie City Council meets next week to determine who will be allowed to sit in council chambers and the priority of public comment.
Public comments and council chamber seating were the topics of a work session Tuesday. Councilman Bryan Shuster requested a work session to explore possible changes to council’s code of conduct for public comments. Public comment periods in recent months have routinely seen familiar faces and Shuster was concerned some who wanted to speak to council during meetings were not able to.
Shuster said he’d like to see a policy in place where a person could only speak at every other council meeting.
Furthermore, following the Aug. 19 council meeting where the Laramie Human Rights Network — a grassroots organization that’s largely been behind protests against racism and excessive police force — staged a sit-in that disrupted a public comment period for around 3 minutes, Shuster said he’d like to see council’s code of conduct stipulate a response to disruptions. He suggested giving council the authority to request a no trespass order for individuals who cause disruptions by a majority vote.
“My biggest thing is that if we’re going to have disruption of the meeting that we need to do something about it,” Shuster said Tuesday. “And if public comment becomes overwhelmed, we need to do something about that, too.”
Vice Mayor Pat Gabriel said he also wanted to see a system in place that moved those who had spoken in a previous meeting to a second tier. Council has public comment periods at the beginning of meetings and at the end of its agenda, and Gabriel said he wanted to make sure there was room for those who preferred to speak at the beginning of meetings.
“My main concern is that it seems we have the same people dominating the first 30 minutes of public comment,” he said. “I would like those who haven’t had the opportunity to move up the list.”
City Attorney Bob Southard said a lottery would be an easy fix to determining who can speak at the beginning of the meeting. When it came to the disruption at the Aug. 19 meeting, Southard said council didn’t “have to tolerate” such incidents, and that the body could have people removed by law enforcement for causing a disruption. However, he said it would be problematic to implement retribution for isolated disruptive incidents.
“The law is fairly clear that you can’t punish people for that single disruption,” Southard said. “If the disruption becomes habitual, then we’ll move into an arena that’s quite complicated, but we’re not there yet.”
Councilwoman Jessica Stalder said she was generally upset with how council had approached its openness to the public of late. Council’s livestream was recently moved from Facebook to YouTube in order to avoid the often volatile discourse made available by the social media platform. For Tuesday’s meeting, no members of the public were allowed in chambers, moving all public comment to Zoom. Those things made Stalder concerned for the direction council was going, she said.
“I think we either have to be creative and expand what we do to meet people’s needs or we contract, and that’s what we’ve done this week,” she said. “If we contract, we fail. …. Based on what happened last week we are punishing people who followed our guidelines up until now and I think we had that demonstration last week was because of a lack of action, and the only action I see is to further limit public comment. We’re elected officials, we’re here to listen to people, so if we’re hearing things we don’t want to hear, we need to address that, not close the blinds and lock the doors. But that’s what’s happened and I’m upset about it. All of these decisions with Facebook and locking council chambers, that was not a council decision. As far as I can tell that was a decision from the mayor and the city manager.”
Mayor Joe Shumway initially said it was his decision to close Tuesday’s meeting to the public, though later in the meeting City Manager Janine Jordan ultimately said that came down to her, the city clerk and the city attorney. Jordan said that was done to give the council adequate time to give staff direction of where to go next.
“The reason we made the decision to close the doors was to allow time to have this conversation,” Jordan said. “We need direction. I have a duty to make decisions to protect staff that work for me, to ensure your safety, so we determined we needed to give you space to decide how to handle people coming into a room with limited seating capacity. How do you want me to manage that? I’ll do whatever you want, and I didn’t make a decision for you, I gave you time and space to make a decision so you could give direction.”
Tom Mattimore said he thought council was missing the point in that it should be putting a stop to disruptions to meetings.
“I’m truly disappointed in the vast amount of wilful ignorance that’s been displayed in the last 15 minutes,” Mattimore said. “The issue is not COVID; it’s not a lottery. The issue is you have a code of conduct and you did not enforce. … The way you stand right now, what is to prevent me from bringing 25 rodeo clowns to the next city council meeting and putting on a demonstration until the cops show up. The week after that, I could bring a bunch of Russian jugglers throwing plates in the air. Either you have a code of conduct that you enforce or you don’t.”
Billy Harris, a Laramie resident and an organizer behind the Laramie Human Rights Network, said Shuster’s proposal conflicted with First Amendment rights.
“After three months of protest, you decide to bring forward a work session to discuss limiting concerns able to be brought to your council even before the mention of bias incident reporting or annual police reports,” Harris said. “Some of you are actively trying to suppress voices of concern in the community rather than addressing the concerns they are bringing. Councilor Shuster’s presentation of this idea is absolutely in conflict with his concern of First Amendment rights. Bryan, in what world does limiting your constituents’ rights…”
To that, Shuster took offense.
“You’re not allowed to attack me,” Shuster interjected during Harris’ comment.
The mayor allowed Harris to finish his comment after intervening in the brief exchange.
Shumway said he liked the idea of having a lottery for determining the order of public comments. Shuster also threw his support behind the approach.
For next week’s city council regular meeting, a lottery will be in place for public comment and for the 10 seats available in council chambers. With social distancing policies in place for city buildings, only 10 members of the public are able to attend council meetings in-person. Those interested in a seat must contact the city by 3 p.m. Sept. 1.