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Speech Critical of Government at Risk of Being Banned by New Homestead Decorum Policy

Speech Critical of Government at Risk of Being Banned by New Homestead Decorum Policy

City of Homestead officials recently approved a new decorum policy effecting council meetings, but citizens fear that it will prevent open communication with the government.

Under the newly enacted policy, the mayor is allowed to ban residents from speaking during the public meetings if the mayor feels that a person is making “impertinent or slanderous remarks,” or becoming “boisterous while addressing the council.”

It would take a majority vote of council members present to give permission to continue speaking during the public comments section of the meeting if banned from speaking.

Residents in the city and surrounding communities voiced their concerns at the Wednesday night council meeting, reiterating that it limited their constitutional rights.

“I am deeply, deeply concerned over the decorum policy,” said Sheila George, a resident from Cutler Bay. “This proposal seems more aimed at restricting speech critical of government than at ensuring the meeting runs smoothly and in a civil fashion.”

Clapping, heckling, applauding, and verbal outbursts in support or opposition to a speaker are also banned under the new policy.

Mayor Jeff Porter previously told the council that adding a printed decorum policy in meeting agendas facilitated his job as chair in maintaining a certain order during meetings.

“The way our rules are written out, the decorum of the meeting is the responsibility of the chair — in this case, the mayor,” he said. “All this does is it puts it on the front page of the agenda to let everybody know there are certain rules and decorum that we expect everyone to operate under. So it’s not incumbent upon me or any chair to have to defend something that is buried in our charter.”

Homestead is not the only municipality to enforce these type of rules in their meetings. Other municipalities have similar decorum policies, including Miami-Dade County, South Miami, Surfside and Palmetto Bay.

The policy was the result of the rising tension during council meetings between the council and a couple of residents.

“There were some questions about First Amendment rights being violated here at the council,” Porter said. “I think the clarity in front of the agenda gives people the parameters of what the decorum is, instead of being buried in an ordinance.”

In January, resident James McDonough wanted to talk to the council about certain members of the police department who are under investigation by the county and the state.

When McDonough named Police Chief Al Rolle, City Manager George Gretsas interjected, asking the mayor to keep anyone from publicly denouncing someone at the meeting.

“It’s totally inappropriate,” Gretsas said. “If he has a specific issue, he should raise it. But to attack someone’s character and integrity at a public meeting is an outrage.”

Gretsas later said that no one has been charged with anything.

McDonough returned to the council in February and accused officials of violating his constitutional rights for interrupting him while addressing the council.

“Last time I was stopped from speaking for criticizing someone and I was wondering if that’s the policy people are supposed to follow,” he said.

Porter said there were ways to get things done and to publicly embarrass a city employee was not the decorum the city would like to practice.

Along with McDonough, resident Matthew Oakey has addressed the council repeatedly, expressing his discontent with the police department for not allowing citizens to carry pocket knives into public meetings.

He noted that the state statute covering the definition of a weapon “explicitly removes a common pocket knife” from the definition.

“So when you have that nice sign that says you can’t have a gun in here … I leave mine in the car, but I also have to leave my pocket knife in the car,” Oakey said. “What are you afraid of?”

Oakey, who comes to meetings with McDonough, has approached the dais several times to bring up the issue of pocket knives with the council, while the city attorney has advised that a pocket knife is still considered a weapon.

“I don’t think anyone wants to get cut, or shot or stabbed,” Porter said in February.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Oakey presented the council with documents denouncing a police officer and McDonough approach the dais to criticize the new policy.

“From my position, it appears there is a constitutionally ignorant presiding officer receiving inadequate advice from attorneys,” McDonough said.

No one was banned from speaking during Wednesday night’s meeting.

Miami Herald

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This entry was posted on March 31, 2015 by in Florida, Headlines, U.S. and tagged , , , .

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