Friday, July 19, 2024

Robert Bledsoe speaks during a Cambridge City Council public comment period Monday as seen in a screen capture from city video.

The appetite of Cambridge’s City Council for challenging public comment kept showing signs of diminishment Monday as members set rules for smaller amounts – and showed its lack of interest in anything spicy.

Mayor E. Denise Simmons sparred with a Cambridge resident as he spoke as part of the community pushback on proposed amendments that would limit public comment, among other changes.

The policy proposals come after two Government Operations, Rules & Claims Committee meetings in February devoted to discussing the rule changes, a yearly practice for the Cambridge City Council. The committee members discussed how to balance their desire for residents to comment and engage with council meetings with their goal of keeping meetings civil, tranquil and relatively brief.

Citizens and activists who opposed the rule changes had no issue calling out what they saw as an attempt by the council to tighten its grip on the public’s access to the meetings.

“Had you allowed for public comment, you would not have a blatantly unconstitutional provision laid before you right now,” Robert Bledsoe said in his comments to the council. “Why do you have a blatantly unconstitutional provision before you right now? Well, it’s because Paul [Toner] said that someone dropped an f-bomb. Is that all it takes to open the city up to a lawsuit? That’s fucking unacceptable.”

“Excuse me,” Simmons cut in. “I would ask that you not use profanity.”

“It was to make a point,” Bledsoe responded.

“Can you make your point less explicitly? I appreciate it, thank you.”

“So as I was saying, this is fucking unacceptable,” Bledsoe continued. “Send this back to committee.”

Simmons paused Bledsoe’s speaking time again and repeated her request for him to refrain from using profanity. Bledsoe relented as he finished his statement to the council. He was one of four commenters that night to address the proposed rule changes.

Acting city solicitor Megan Bayer explained that under a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court ruling, Barron v. Kolenda, the council can request that commenters refrain from profanity – but cannot outright forbid it. The council voted 8-1, with councillor Toner against, to drop the word “profanity” from a list of prohibited expressions during public comment.

Proposed rule changes would, among other things, require at least two councillors to sponsor legislation coming to the council, renumber several rules and codify limits for speaking time for commenters during meetings with a high volume of sign-ups. Some matters would get no time for members of the public to speak.

“For matters where a public hearing is not required by law, the chair shall determine if there will be public comment and when it will occur. For matters where a public hearing is not required by law and the chair has called for public comment, each speaker shall limit their comments to no more than three minutes,” a policy order says. “In the event there are 20 or more speakers signed up for public comment, the amount of time allocated would be two minutes. If there are more than 75 speakers, the amount of time allocated would be one minute.”

Recent disruptions by pro-Palestinian protestors at council meetings weren’t brought up directly during committee meetings, and councillors asked about it directly denied the protests played any role. They instead focused on the policy order as simply enshrining the council’s unofficial rules for public comment into legislation.

“There’s been some comments made in public comment that refer to ‘Paul did this’ or ‘councillor Toner did that,’” councillor Paul Toner said. “It’s just codifying what we’ve been doing. I will own the fact that I wrote in the word profanity and, again, the Government Operations Committee went along with me and moved that forward.”

Simmons said she wanted it to be clear “that we’re not trying to diminish people’s ability to weigh in on the council agenda or what happens in City Council. We just want to make sure it’s an environment where all people feel heard, and all people feel that they can come.” Still, she noted that public comment during a council meeting “is not the only way that people get to share their thoughts and desires, and I think each of us goes the extra mile to make sure people are heard.”

The night’s discussion and legislative approvals were disturbing to some of the longest-attending and most regular participants of public comment periods, including East Cambridge’s Heather Hoffman and North Cambridge’s James Williamson. They’ve complained repeatedly about the council’s inconsistent application of speech to residents and even other councillors.

Williamson saw a connection between protests in council chambers and the new codification of rules, even if councillors rejected one.

“The rhetoric in Cambridge seems to go in one direction toward talking more and more about inclusion, as the actual practice is going in the opposite direction, toward more and more exclusion,” Williamson said in comments to the council. “There is an overreaction here to the pressure around a cease-fire resolution and the way in which people were pursuing that. So hold off on overreacting to that, give it some thought, allow the public to have participation, not just in this kind of participatory budget format, but in the real functioning of government in the city.”

This post was backdated from July 6, 2024.