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OKLAHOMA CITY — Tuesday, the City Council of Oklahoma City held their shortest meeting in recent memory. During the course of the meeting, there were no votes that were not unanimous among this often conflicted body. 

Meanwhile, a group of activists held a press conference downstairs and were not able to make it to the meeting to address the Council before the Council adjourned.

Short Meeting

While the Council had a typically lengthy agenda, including many zoning cases that usually take up a great deal of time, Tuesday’s meeting lasted all of two hours, a record in this reporter’s attendance of the meetings.

With Mayor Holt out for personal matters, Ward 5 Councilman and current Mayor Pro Tempore David Greenwell chaired the meeting. 

At the beginning of the meeting he addressed his peers on the horseshoe, encouraging everybody to be very efficient with the high number of zoning items, saying, “Then we can all have our fun at the end of the meeting.”

With the exception of two items, the consent docket required no further discussion and no separate votes, and passed unanimously. In fact, every single voting item of the 15 page agenda passed without any opposing votes.

Comment Issues

One member of the public was allowed to make comments during the hearing on a zoning item in far Northeast Oklahoma City. Michael Washington, familiar to most who follow the City Council closely, is an activist from Northeast Oklahoma City who is well known for attending Council meetings and demanding that the body hear what he has to say.

During his comments during Tuesday’s meeting, he said that he wouldn’t allow people to run over residents of Northeast Oklahoma City and take their property. He asked if this was another part of the Innovation District. When his time was up he returned to his seat. Ward 7 City Councilor Nikki Nice explained that the site in question was nowhere near the densely populated portion of Ward 7 that Mr. Washington typically concerns himself with.

From the back of the gallery, Mr. Washington stood and shouted indecipherably at Nice. A source told Free Press that when he left the gallery shortly after, police escorted him out of the building with a claim that he had been reported to “smell of alcohol.”

Public Participation

When the agenda for this meeting of the Council was posted, many noted that the rules for Public Comment had been adjusted since in-person meetings resumed. A warning was added that participants who go over their allotted three minutes for comment were subject to removal from the chamber. The addition of the language struck many as an escalation of tensions.

During items from Council, Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon brought up the changes. She pointed out that in previous meetings, the Mayor has interrupted people going over their time and politely asked them for concluding thoughts. According to Hamon, this has been effective and well received by members of the public.

City Hall
Oklahoma City Manager Craig Freeman (L) and Mayor David Holt listen to a presentation during a City Council meeting August 2019. (file photo, BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

City Manager Craig Freeman said that the rules for the agenda come from his office. He referred to recent unruly meetings at the County level and said that the City wanted to avoid that kind of disruption so that they could handle city business.

When time for Public Comment came up on the agenda, the three people signed up to speak were not present in the gallery. Two were among the activists who held the earlier mentioned Press Conference downstairs from the meeting. The third was Mr. Washington, who was removed from the building.

After the meeting adjourned, again, much earlier than usual, some activists were seen coming into the gallery.

After the meeting, Free Press spoke to Freeman, Hamon, and Nice about the new language regarding public comment.

Consequences

We asked Freeman about the policy. He told us the policy is not new and was put in place when the City returned to meeting in person.

“We wanted to make sure that the policy was clear and really was just stating what the consequences would be if you violated the policies that have been clearly stated previously.”

Freeman went on to say that the goal would not be to arrest people, but “If you’re disruptive and we have to make you leave, our goal would be to escort you out. If you leave cooperatively, then it’s all done.”

“We just want to be able to conduct business…We just want to get control of the meeting so we can manage it,” Freeman said.

Tensions

Free Press asked Hamon what message she thinks the new language about public comment sends to people in residents of the City.

“To me it really flares tensions,” she said. “Again, we’ve had a really great history of people making comments, while sometimes getting a little worked up or going over time. And, the Mayor has been really good about saying they’ve come to the end of their time and asking for a concluding statement. And people mostly have done that.”

Hamon continued, “So, in my mind, you’re kind of escalating things before they’ve begun, kind of preemptively. Why do that when you haven’t had any problems?”

Asked if she thought it was a response to recent county meeting disruptions, Hamon said it must be.

“But again, when things have flared up over there, from what I’ve seen, it’s in response to some kind of effort to quash speech. If people are allowed to speak their peace, and maybe even engage with them beyond those public meetings to discuss their concerns.”

“It’s not like people aren’t going to show up and speak their piece, but if you have that relationship and can have a conversation, maybe that may help some of the tensions.”

Arrests not expected

Free Press also got to ask Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice her thoughts on the policy.

“I would be interested to see it implemented. I’m not in favor of anybody being arrested for free speech,” Nice said. “This is what democracy is, for people to be able to have that comment.”

Nice continued, “But three minutes is a long time. Our Mayor has been lenient with four or five [minutes.] So, you can fill the room, you can fill the speech. So, it’s obviously a case by case basis. There are going to be times where we have one person disrupt every meeting. So, there’s a difficulty in doing that kind of business. But I don’t agree with people being arrested for it. And I don’t really expect it to happen.”

The City Council will meet again on February 16 at 8:30 a.m. The Council can anticipate activists to attend that meeting.


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