When a public body refuses to allow comments from the public during an open meeting, whose interests is it serving? And is the new policy designed to squelch citizen speech in order to suppress the message?
Following the controversy surrounding this year’s Boudin Festival — where the city’s police chief was allowed to use the police department as a de facto headquarters for his campaign for sheriff (read the full story here) — several residents attempted to contact the mayor and council in recent weeks requesting the issue be put on the agenda for the council’s monthly meeting in May.
Not only were those citizens — including longtime Scott resident Velma McBride — frustrated over what a number of sources have called the misuse of public property by the chief of police, they also feel their rights were violated when two city council members forbade their entrance into the festival because they were carrying political literature promoting the Scott chief's competition in the upcoming sheriff's race. They wanted their voices heard, to raise the issue that their rights were violated by two members of the city council, and that laws were broken on city-owned property by none other than the city's most powerful law enforcement officer.
The council and mayor, however, refused those requests, claiming the matter had nothing to do with the city since the Boudin Festival is governed by its own board. (The entire function is held on city property.)
So those residents, after being denied the opportunity to have the issue added to the council’s agenda, attended the May meeting hoping at least to address the matter during the public comments period of the meeting.
“We don’t have a public comments period in Scott,” Mayor Purvis Morrison told The Independent right before the start of Thursday’s meeting. “We used to, but we don’t need it. If people have issues they want to address, they request it be put on the agenda. But I told them I wasn’t putting this on the agenda. This was dealing with the Boudin Festival, not the city of Scott. Sure, it was on public property, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the city. That’s a festival matter, not city. It’s just like Zeus being forbidden from the Lafayette festival; you didn’t see them going before the [Lafayette City-Parish] council.”
Yet, unlike the city of Scott, the Lafayette City-Parish Council does offer the public a chance to raise concerns not listed on its agenda during one of its three monthly meetings. And according to Dee Stanley, chief administrative officer for the Lafayette Consolidated Government, citizens at that meeting are allowed to raise any concern they wish with the council, as long it’s not concerning a matter already listed on the agenda.
“At the second meeting of the month is our public comments section; you can come to that council meeting and talk about anything you want, but it can’t be something that’s already on the agenda,” Stanley explains.
So what’s the deal with the Scott City Council?
As Thursday’s meeting wound to a close, two residents attempted to have their voices heard before the council, including Velma McBride and Waylon Guidry. Both were denied by the sound of Mayor Morrison’s banging of the gavel in an attempt to silence and bring the meeting to an end.
“I tried to get on the agenda; you refused,” decried McBride over the sound of the banging gavel. “Y’all are the city council, I’m a citizen, a taxpayer, I have a right to make a comment.”
“You used to ask for comments, discussion,” said Guidry. “Why don’t you have that anymore? It’s unfair.”
But perhaps there’s another reason McBride’s comments weren’t welcome during Thursday’s meeting, largely because they centered on Scott Police Chief Chad Leger’s potential violation of state law during the city’s recent Boudin Fest. While Leger was allowed to use city property, which based on photographic evidence included the inside of the police department as an unofficial headquarters for his campaign for sheriff, McBride — a supporter of Leger’s competition — was kicked out of the event for possessing “political literature” supporting sheriff’ candidate Mark Garber.
Fair? Not so much.
But it also does not seem to be in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law; though there is some grey area with the law. Here’s how the law, found under Revised Statute 42:14, reads:
Except school boards, which shall be subject to R.S. 42:15, each public body conducting a meeting which is subject to the notice requirements of R.S. 42:19(A) shall allow a public comment period at any point in the meeting prior to action on an agenda item upon which a vote is to be taken. The governing body may adopt reasonable rules and restrictions regarding such comment period.
Yet, by offering no outlet for the public to air issues not listed on the agenda, city officials are in effect putting a muzzle on the voice of the public. That, according to Robert Travis Scott of the nonprofit Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, may not be illegal, but it’s not good policy either. PAR acts as an independent voice and offers solutions to critical public issues throughout the state.
With certain rules and restrictions in place, the public, even if only for three to five minutes at the end of a meeting, should be given a voice, PAR's Scott says.