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Flint, MI–The Flint City Council’s Decorum in Debate training session–a meeting set up by council members to learn how to better behave and debate in meetings–went the way most council meetings do.
The meeting held on Feb. 15 was chock full of “point of orders,” appeals, and attacks.
Council voted to go through training sessions with a parliamentarian last week to gain a better understanding of meeting rules and how to behave in debates in an attempt to improve the flow of meetings that are notoriously dysfunctional.
This meeting, albeit three hours long instead of eight or nine, was not much different.
The first issue came up only one minute into the meeting. Council members argued over whether or not they should allow for public comment before the training.
Councilman Eric Mays brought the issue up, and argued in support of allowing public comment because the session was publicly posted and governed under the Open Meetings Act.
Council President Kate Fields argued that because this was a parliamentary training session, it did not require public comment.
Mays appealed her ruling, and the council voted 6-3 to allow the public to comment.
Arthur Woodson was one of the public speakers, and used some of his time to criticize Councilman Maurice Davis’s use of social media and his accusation that Woodson was behind the threatening phone calls Davis was receiving.
“He and his wife said that I had something to do with the threats that he was receiving, even though I didn’t know the person, I never talked to the person, and for him to insinuate–,” Woodson said before being interrupted by a “point of information.”
Davis made the point of information, and Fields told Davis he was out of order.
“You’re going to allow him to continue to attack me on a homicide threat? I’ll be filing charges shortly,” Davis said.
Woodson continued until he was interrupted again, this time, by Councilwoman Eva Worthing calling a “point of order.”
Fields, as she often does when someone calls a point of order, requested the rule number that has been broken.
Worthing told her she did not know the rule number, but that the council is “not allowed to attack each other.”
Fields asked Woodson to continue speaking without personal attacks, to which Woodson argued that nobody stood up for him when Davis was “attacking” him last week by insinuating he was involved in the threatening phone calls.
When public comment ended, Fields began to move the meeting along to the training session, but Mays called a point of order, and said the council always gets a chance to respond to public speakers at the end.
Fields denied the point of order and said “there is no requirement in the Open Meetings Act for council response.”
Mays appealed her ruling, and then the appeal came to a vote. The council voted 4-5 to allow for council response to public comment.
During Davis’s response, he talked about Woodson, and called him the “biggest nuisance in the community.”
Mays called a point of order and requested that Fields “monitor and deal with personal attacks.” Davis began to speak before Fields could respond, and she told him he was out of order again, before asking him to continue without attacking anyone.
During Councilman Allan Griggs’s response to public comment, he began to say, “Mr. Dumas, since you are an aspiring councilperson, you need to pay attention to our–” but was interrupted by Councilwoman Monica Galloway calling a point of order.
Galloway said Griggs needed to refrain from making political comments, as the “council does not allow you to use this forum for any political agenda.”
Fields said there would be discussion on the Hatch Act, which forbids using city resources to campaign, at the next council meeting, but said Griggs’s statement didn’t seem to be campaigning for or against anybody. Galloway began to respond, and Fields called her out of order.
Then the training began.
Fields introduced Eleanor “Coco” Siewert, the professional registered parliamentarian who would be conducting the training.
“This first hour of this meeting surely shows the need to have this training, and this council hear this training and participate,” Fields said.
Siewert presented a PowerPoint slideshow that went over rules, how to have civil debate, proper language, interrupting motions, and other tips for best practice during meetings.
She discussed Robert’s Rules of Order, the guidelines used for the procedure of public meetings, and also answered questions about council rules, as council rules supersede Robert’s Rules.
Some items of particular relevance for council and the public viewing council meetings were:
- Points of Information should be used to find out information, not to point out that something is wrong.
- Proper use: “How much would this cost?”
- Improper use: “Does the speaker know they’re wrong about this?”
- Council members should keep their remarks confined to the question or issue at hand.
- Siewert said members should avoid talking about things the Council has done in the past, and focus only on the pending issue before them.
- Proper language
- Siewert gave an example of a rule from the Virginia House which says “No member shall in debate use any language or gesture calculated to wound, offend, or insult another member.”
- Best practices for the Chair
- Siewert said “the best Chairs are often called facilitators…and if you’re being a facilitator, you’re giving everybody a chance.”
- She also suggested the council think about how teachers talk to their students. “The first grade teacher always tells the children to be quiet by whispering, not by yelling at them,” she said.
- Refrain from attack
- Siewert said council members should not question or remark on the motives of other council members. She even suggests not using their names but instead saying, “the council person from this ward.”
The discussion of the two sets of rules prompted Griggs and Worthing to speak in support of getting rid of council rules completely. Fields said the rules were important to have, but that they needed to be reviewed and revised to get rid of confusion and conflicts within them.
Siewert agreed the rules should be reviewed, and said it’s important for community leaders to “set the standard” when it comes to civil debates. She said that research has shown that “public officials’ incivility to one another contributes to voter alienation and antipathy toward public officials and public agencies.”
But even as she was presenting, she encountered difficulty getting through all of her slides and dealing with the questions and arguments among the council members, often asking the council to let her finish speaking, or let her move on to the next slide.
Council members posed questions about how these rules relate to council rules, and about specific examples of situations from previous meetings.
Galloway referred to a meeting where a point of order was called during the announcement of a vote that wasn’t responded to. She said council rules require that everyone cease talking when a point of order is called, and that the chair must respond to it.
Siewert said the council must also think about “reasonableness.”
“If a person is announcing a vote, does it make sense that you would interrupt the announcement of a vote?” Siewert asked.
Galloway said reasonableness just gives the council more grey area that they do not need.
Fields spoke about her experience as chair and being called a “tyrant” or a “dictator” by council members. Siewert said she hoped that would never happen again. Fields later referred to a previous meeting where many members were speaking at once, and said they were “howling like banshees.”
Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter said she didn’t think that was appropriate or professional.
“Councilwoman Fields, she’s the president, she just referred to her colleagues as banshees,” Winfrey-Carter said. “Everyone must check themselves…but the same people who always complain about others, they are the very ones that do not exhibit professional decorum.”
Fields said she was just trying to illustrate her point, but Siewert said she wasn’t sure “that words like banshee really help.” Fields apologized.
Councilwoman Worthing complained about council members bringing up “race” and ”white privilege” during the council meetings.
“That’s also not helping our meetings to bring up race constantly,” Worthing said.
Worthing then referred to Councilwoman Winfrey-Carter as “Miss Carter,” and Winfrey-Carter asked that she say her last name correctly.
“I think that addresses exactly how others feel,” Worthing said. “There was no intention of disrespect at all, and yet when others respond…it’s hateful sounding, it’s mean. And would you react that way, if it was a student or normal colleagues in a normal office setting? I would hope not, I would hope we wouldn’t say ‘you’re a dictator,’ ‘you have white privilege.’”
Later in the meeting, Galloway spoke with Siewert and when they finished, Worthing asked to speak.
She started her time off by saying, “that was really long,” prompting Galloway to make a point of information.
“Are you going to let her attack my time?” Galloway asked Fields.
Fields told her Worthing was allowed to have an opinion on her time, and told Galloway not to “look for an attack.”
Not even the adjournment of the meeting was smooth.
Fields announced the meeting adjourned, and Mays made a point of order, saying “we got an agenda.”
Fields said he was right, and asked if there was any additional discussion. Mays and Griggs gave closing remarks, and then Fields announced the adjournment again.
Mays made another point of order, and said he would make a motion to adjourn the meeting. Fields said because the training was informal, “we don’t take any motions during the training.”
Mays repeated that he moved that they adjourn the meeting, and Fields said “the meeting has already been adjourned, Mr. Mays.”
The next training session will be held March 1, at 5:30 p.m. To listen to the first training session, click here.