We talk a lot here about the right for the public to have access to elected officials.
Whether it's Chapter 21 or Chapter 22 of Iowa Code, we stand by the public's right to address grievances against their representative government body - within reason.
You can't go in and threaten, which has happened at several Fort Madison City Council meetings I've covere, action. There have been people who have physically threatened and legally threatened the council.
There's absolutely no room for any type of physical threat, you'll get no love from any of the media in the room if you threaten someone on the council. We're too close to Mt. Pleasant and the memory of that tragedy.
But a legal threat is part of the game.
And at Tuesday's City Council meeting, Sean Rogers, owner of the development company Happyland Properties, who feels he's being harassed by city officials regarding nuisance letters, got up to speak to the council and was sat down by Mayor Matt Mohrfeld.
Let's be clear here because I was taken aback with the move - Mohrfeld's actions were legal. I phoned up Randy Evans, the director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council who told me that there is no law that guarantees the right for someone to speak at a public meeting.
And he also confirmed that the conducting of the agenda is at the Mayor's direction.
These are both things that Mohrfeld told me when we chatted after the meeting via phone. I was on my way to Coralville for the HTC state volleyball game and observed the meeting over zoom.
I immediately sent texts to two council members asking if the Mayor actually just stopped someone from speaking during the public comment portion of the posted agenda. Both said Mohrfeld's actions were guided by advice from Pat O'Connell of Lynch Dallas, the city's attorney.
The council members shared those with the mayor and he called to clarify the issue with me, which garners lots of points for him. Mohrfeld has sat on many elected and volunteer boards and has a clearer understanding of the rules than most.
I told him I wasn't sure what he did was legal, but I was going to check it out. He told me it was legal. I'll probably owe him a Busch Lite at some point. Let me say again - he was right and I was wrong on interpretation of the code..
I did tell him and the council members I communicated with that I checked on the action and it was, in fact, appropriate.
Rogers needs to be reminded that threatening a city council with multiple legal actions is probably not the right way to open a dialogue, but to Rogers' defense he said he's been trying for awhile to work with the city.
My concerns, and these were shared with the Mayor and the council members I was communicating with, is that this sets a terrible precedent. They don't have a crystal ball. Maybe Rogers had another issue to speak about - probably not - but unless you're certain that he's going to bring up a lawsuit, you should probably give him a warning and then allow him to speak with a short leash.
If it gets contentious, the mayor can always shut it down.
It also should be noted that code doesn't mandate anything when it comes to open meetings other than they be held in open session except where stringent allowances are provided.
The council can let anyone speak and they don't have to respond under guidance of counsel, but nothing in Iowa Code says they can't discuss issues. They just can't deliberate toward action.
In Mohrfeld's defense and that of former mayor Brad Randolph, I've never before Tuesday seen them shut anyone out from the public comment section. As a matter of fact, they typically will allow comment from the public outside of the public comment section, so it's not like this is ongoing issue. But it does show precedent and a respect for public input.
But this is one of those nip-it-in-the-bud scenarios from a public perspective, in my humble opinion. Yes, we have people who rant and rave and threaten, and with society in the "mood" it's in now, it's becoming more prevalent.
But banning people from at least addressing their grievances, even repeatedly, is a scary road to travel. And I believe it puts the council on thin legal ice if and when someone were to challenge them on being singled out and not being allowed to address the council.
The precedent of the council has always been to allow people to speak even when those people are threatening the council and or mayor. They make their case, sometimes full-throated, and then leave the building. I've yet to see a FMPD officer or chief escort someone from the building.
So the precedent has always been to let them speak. Precedent carries weight with judges especially where there's ambiguity in current codes, i.e. what's the customary action and how should the public have anticipated being treated.
Rogers had no reasonable anticipation of not being allowed to speak.
An old editor of mine used to say, "We have the right to write it, but is it right to write it."
Mayor Mohrfeld certainly had the right to quash Rogers before he got to the podium, but was it right to quash him?
We believe it wasn't - and the world may never know - But that's Beside the Point.
Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at email@example.com.
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Monday, November 14, 2022 Report this