Burlington City Council aims to address civility gap

Published: Feb. 9, 2022 at 6:11 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The city of Burlington is looking at new strategies to try to rein in the growing problem of disruptive behavior by the public at City Council meetings.

Outbursts, yelling, cheering, and swearing has become all too common at recent meetings while councilors work through thorny issues like mask mandates and policing. Now, the council is taking steps to exert more control over meetings,

“The point is not to chill or to limit free speech, it’s to encourage it, but to recognize there are ways in which we can do so in ways which are effective,” said Burlington city attorney Dan Richardson, who was tasked with outlining what legal powers the council has to protect free speech while bringing more order. In a memo to the council Monday, Richardson suggests:

  • An enforcement strategy, such as a consistent security presence, to make sure council rules are enforced.
  • Revise the layout of council chambers and develop safety protocols like increasing the distance between the council and the public.
  • A code of conduct for public speakers including rules and consequences for infractions.
  • Investigate creating online meetings for people who consistently disrupt in-person meetings.
  • Councilors should engage in civil discourse themselves and model that behavior for the public.

“To try and make sure that public participation is effective but it’s not at the expense of reasonable order, to make sure we conduct our business, we do it in a meaningful way, and we can get out in a reasonable amount o time,” Richardson said.

Councilor Joan Shannon, D- South, the longest-tenured member who has also served as president, says she’s open to exploring different kinds of meeting procedures that others use around the state. “People can come and be angry but there are still boundaries. And that’s what’s important -- is that we maintain control of the meeting and that we are able to get our work done,” she said.

Richardson suggests the council is within its rights to end public comment, turn off a microphone, or remove people from a meeting if they are disruptive. But he stresses these rules need to follow the code of conduct and be consistent. Richardson and Shannon both agree that harmful outbursts and threatening speech put a chilling effect on both the council and the public. “I’ve heard from so many people who have felt shut out by the process afraid to literally afraid to go to Contois Auditorium and that’s really concerning,” Shannon said.

The civility discussions come as Town Meeting Day is only a few short weeks away, when voters will pick several new councilors who would help shape the new policies.

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