NEWS

Muzzle or relief from ad nauseam rhetoric?

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 3/25/21

By JOHN HOWELL Changes in City Council rules aimed at streamlining meetings, including limiting members and the public to 10 minutes of debate on a single issue, gained committee approval Monday night after nearly two hours of discussion that at one

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NEWS

Muzzle or relief from ad nauseam rhetoric?

Posted

Changes in City Council rules aimed at streamlining meetings, including limiting members and the public to 10 minutes of debate on a single issue, gained committee approval Monday night after nearly two hours of discussion that at one point flared into accusations between two councilmen.

Drafted by Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi, City Council President Steve McAllister sees the changes as a tool in his drive to make meetings more transparent and engage the public in city government.

He envisions the rule changes as making the City Council “more public friendly.”

Two of the changes that would consolidate votes on matters agreed upon in committee generated little discussion, but when it came to limiting debate, Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur charged it would “muzzle” his ability to represent constituents.

That’s not what McAllister is looking to do.

Addressing the intergovernmental committee, McAllister prefaced his comments saying the rules could be changed at any time and he is “not looking to take away the opportunity to speak on anything.” He said changes would give the council greater flexibility. “In the grand scheme of things, there is no limiting of debate, there is no stopping of asking questions,” he said.

And should an issue need further discussion, McAllister observed the council retains the option of suspending its rules.

Under the change, council members and members of the public would have a total of 10 minutes to speak on a subject under council consideration.

This would not apply to council presentations such as those involving zone changes, budget presentations and actuarial reports, McAllister said Wednesday. He also noted that a time limit for governmental bodies is not unique. He said the Rhode Island House of Representatives has a five-minute limit on speaking.

Sinapi reasoned the rule would prevent speakers from repeating their points to “ad nauseam.”

“The point is you say what you have to say and move on, and then vote, that’s it, not sit there and argue the same points over and over and over again. It doesn’t do anyone any good,” he said.

But even in discussing rules aimed at focusing discussion, council members repeated themselves – and, as members of the public observed when they finally got to speak, extended their comments beyond 10 minutes.

It was into the second hour of discussion that Sinapi and Ladouceur exchanged barbs. It started when Ladouceur asserted members of the public weren’t attending meetings because they are “fed up and disgusted” with the council.

That brought a retort from Sinapi, who asked Ladouceur if he was calling him and Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe liars because they argued members – the inference was Ladouceur – were dragging out meetings.

Raising his voice, Ladouceur charged that “you’re putting words in my mouth constantly … I’m giving my opinion. I’m giving you my opinion, you gave your opinion, I’m giving you my opinion.”

When the public finally got to weigh in, GOP City Chairman Rick Cascella and community activist Rob Cote remarked on the tension between Sinapi and Ladouceur.

“There’s definitely an animosity that exists on the council with some of you guys and that’s something you need to work out amongst yourself,” Cascella said. He reasoned “there are other things that slow down meetings.” He cited the practice of placing items on the agenda only to have them moved forward to another meeting month after month.

“What happened, you didn’t do your homework. You don’t have it ready. Why is it not ready?’ he asked.

Cote challenged Sinapi to repeat his augments to limit debate to a post-secondary civics class and “see what that gets you.”

“That will get First Amendment and discrimination actions being taken against you.” He vowed to contact the ACLU and file a discriminatory suit “if this council moves forward to restrict the rights of citizens to speak for 10 minutes.”

Citizen Roger Durand took a longer view of the proposed limitation, suggesting it would work to the detriment of the council by restricting presentations and discussions on matters such as unfunded pension liabilities that have a profound impact on the city. McAllister said Wednesday he plans to make it clear the restrictions wouldn’t apply to those making presentations to the council.

Although the change in rules appears headed for approval, no action was taken Monday. Because of issues in the posting of the meeting, the agenda was pushed ahead to April 4. Committee meetings, however, droned on for more than five hours.

That didn’t appear to trouble Ladouceur.

In arguing against a 10-minute rule, he said, “There’s no time limit put on good governance. I don’t care how long I have to sit in a council meeting … I don’t care whether I get done at 8:30, or I get done at 11. What matters is when we are completed, do I feel that I have properly represented the people that have elected me?”

Ward 8 Councilman Vincent Gebhart didn’t foresee the rule as dramatically changing the meeting, adding that the public and the process would benefit if those speaking presented their thoughts in a clear and concise way.

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