Burlington councilors dismayed by deteriorating civility at meetings

Published: Dec. 2, 2021 at 6:52 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Raucous outbursts at Burlington’s City Council meeting Wednesday was the latest example of what some observers have called deteriorating civility at the meetings.

City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, and Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South, tried to quell major disruptions during Wednesday’s special meeting, as citizens angrily voiced opposition to a mask mandate in the city.

“It seems like things are getting more and more out of control at meetings. There’s less and less civility. Not that this is a brand new phenomenon but it seems to be getting worse and worse over time,” said Kurt Wright, a former City Council president.

Current city councilors agree that members of the public have become increasingly disruptive over the last couple of years. Recent meetings on Sears Lane brought a major outburst from advocates for the homeless after councilors voted against taking up the issue again.

The bad behavior has included not staying within the allotted time for public comments, hurling insults at councilors, and even yelling over councilor’s statements. At a September meeting focused on a pro-Palestinian resolution, the auditorium was packed with people on both sides of the issue and councilors were visibly shaken. “There was yelling, chanting going back and forth. I was legitimately concerned that violence was going to erupt,” said City Councilor Chip Mason, D-Ward 5.

Former Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle estimates he has attended around 500 City Council meetings and is noticing the change in attitude and behavior. He says that while hot button issues have always been present, citizens did not express themselves like this. “You have a right to express an opinion, you don’t have a right to disrupt a meeting and shout at those that are attempting to make a difficult decision,” he said.

Past city leaders say they believe the increasing polarization of the country is bleeding into Burlington politics, especially with the pandemic and social issues igniting even more separation. Council President Max Tracy, who is in charge of running orderly meetings, says he’s worried the bad behavior will deter people from getting into public service. “It does make it really difficult to do our jobs as councilors and continue to serve and I think it does have an impact in terms of convincing people to want to serve,” he said.

At the Vermont Statehouse, disruptive protestors have been removed by police, something Tracy says he has been reluctant to do for fear it could ignite even more hostility. But Shannon says the council needs to decide how they are going to handle these issues. “We have to decide, as a body, what we’re going to tolerate and how we’re going to support one another. If we continue to tolerate it, it will continue to happen, so I think that we have to have clear boundaries,” she said.

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