By Tom Travis
Moments into Monday night’s virtual Flint City Council meeting, discussion descended into chaos and arguing over whether the public should be allowed to speak. It was a squabble which set the stage for a planned training session on decorum and civil debate.
After more than an hour of wrangling, the council ultimately voted six to three to allow public speaking — the majority disagreeing with Council President Kate Fields who had moved to prevent it.
Finally, after several residents spoke up the council began its planned training session on decorum and civil debate with professional parliamentarian Eleanor “Coco” Siewert as moderator and instructor. That session ran from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
The public speaking debate
Council President Kate Fields (4th Ward) noted, “if you go back and look at the videos of all our other trainings you’ll see the public is allowed to listen but there is no time for the public to speak.” Many council members voiced their opposition to Fields’ point.
Councilperson Eric Mays (1st Ward) appealed the ruling of Fields to not allow public speaking and a debate and vote ensued. In the end, the council voted six to three against Fields’ motion to not allow public speaking
Allan Griggs (8th Ward) and Eva Worthing (9th Ward) sided with Fields.
Voting in favor of public speaking were Eric Mays (1st Ward), Maurice Davis (2nd Ward), Santino Guerra (3rd Ward), Jerri Winfrey-Carter (5th Ward), Herb Winfrey (6th Ward) and Monica Galloway (7th Ward).
So public speaking proceeded, with several residents having waited in the phone queue to speak. Two written comments also were read into the record. Most of the public speakers focused their comments on their right to speak in an open meeting and calling for the council to adhere to the training in “decorum” and “civility.”
Parliamentarian struggles to continue presentation as chaos ensues
Many contentious points quickly arose in the training session. Councilperson Monica Galloway (7th Ward) made a point of order while Council President Kate Fields was addressing Siewert. Galloway’s point of order was that Councilperson Maurice Davis had asked for the floor and Galloway asked why the president gets to supersede Davis being able to speak.
Fields responded, “You’re only looking for a fight, Ms. Galloway. I’m not looking for a fight.” She said the decorum session was an “informal” training session and that she had every intention to allow Davis the floor.
Contentious discussion on the use of “points of order” and “points of information”
Siewert clarified for the council some parliamentarian procedures — namely the use of points of order and points of information. Fields asked if a point of order or point of information can be made during a vote and appeal.
Siewert explained that a point of order or point of information cannot be made during an appeal. Also, during the vote of the council a point of order or point of information cannot be made once the first council member announces their vote until the vote is over and the result is announced by the chair of the meeting.
Maurice Davis (2nd Ward) asked if point of information must be in the form of a question. Siewert explained, “You cannot make a statement during a point of information. It’s not debate. It can’t be something you could have just said when you had your turn to speak.”
She added, “According to your rules [Flint City Council’s rules] a point of information is to gain information.”
Galloway brought up an incident during a recent council meeting where she was attempting to get the attention of the chair because the vote results were announced incorrectly. In that incident, both Galloway and Mays were muted at the order of Council President Fields.
Siewert said she was listening to that meeting and offered her interpretation of what happened. She stated, “There was so much yelling I couldn’t even hear what the clerk said.”
Mays (1st Ward) adamantly clarified, “The council’s rules supersede Robert’s Rules of Order, council rules state that a point of order/point of information cannot be ignored, and even if the chair ignores a point of order/point of information they’re up for disciplinary action.”
Siewert noted that while the council’s rules supersede Robert’s Rules the council, “as a body, [the council] does not follow all the rules all the time,” Siewert said. She added the council needs to decide “it will follow all the rules all the time.”
For several council meetings, since 2020, a discussion of council rules has been on the agenda. But that discussion has been delayed and postponed.
Mays read from the council rule book that the council rules are to be evaluated each year. Mays noted that this has not been done for “a couple of years.” According to Janell Johnson, administrative assistant in the City Clerk’s office, the council has not voted to update the council rules since October 2019.
“It’s about respect” pleads Councilperson Winfrey-Carter
In another contentious upheaval, Fields referred to some of the council as “banshees.” Councilperson Jerri Winfrey-Carter (5th Ward) asked Siewert if the fact that Fields called her colleagues “banshee” is professional, Winfrey-Carter said, “It’s not professional.”
Winfrey-Carter pleaded, “We need to get to the root of the problem. It’s not about council rules, it’s not about Robert’s Rules, it’s about respect and treating others like you would want to be treated. And as far as I’m concerned this meeting here is null and void.”
Siewert pointed out to Winfrey-Carter that the way the council acts with each other will be the way the public comes and speaks to council. The council shows the public how to discuss and debate, she said.
One of the first slides in Siewert’s PowerPoint presentation said, “For civility to be a regular part of community discourse, community leaders must set the standard.
“Scholars are concerned and the data seems to demonstrate that public officials’ incivility to one another contributes to voter alienation and antipathy toward public officials and public agencies.”
“The meetings are too long” — “Coco” Siewert, parliamentarian
Striking an instructive tone, Siewert said, “The meetings are too long — because you are spending way too much time speaking about the rules. When you meet for that long, even the most patient person will lose their patience.
“So I think you need to figure out a way to shorten the agenda, agree that you won’t interrupt anybody for the next three meetings and see if you can shorten it up and just in the terms of city business.
“You’ve become so inflamed with what you’re saying to each other that you’re ignoring the city business,” Siewert said.
The Council is resuming committee meetings after a break related to the coronavirus, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 17 on the City of Flint Meetings YouTube channel. The public may participate by calling 617-944-8177.
The next Council decorum training session will be at 5 p.m. Monday, March 2. and the next regular council meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 22. All meetings can be accessed by the information above.
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.