The Olympia City Council decided Tuesday not to act on an ordinance that would make it unlawful to interfere with or disturb city meetings.
Nearly as soon as the council meeting started, Councilwoman Julie Hankins moved to remove the item from the night’s agenda — before several Olympia residents had a chance to speak out against the measure.
A few council members expressed misgivings about the proposed ordinance, which would make interfering with meetings a misdemeanor offense.
The proposal came out of a discussion at the council’s June retreat, Councilwoman Jessica Bateman explained. Council members decided that creating a safe space for people to share ideas and conduct business should be a priority. But she said she has concerns about this approach.
The proposal comes eight months after the council opted to move its Dec. 7, 2016 meeting due to a disturbance caused by anti-fracking protesters. On June 6 of last year, Olympia officials also canceled a Downtown Strategy meeting that was interrupted by people protesting gentrification. That incident ended in a physical altercation between a 20-year-old man and a 71-year-old man. Police were called, but no one wanted to press charges.
Other city meetings also have been canceled due to interruptions.
The proposed ordinance grabbed the attention of the Thurston County Democrats, with party chair Boudicca Walsh attending the council meeting to speak out against the measure. She said the local party wouldn’t support current council members in future elections if they were to show their support for the ordinance.
Walsh told The Olympian on Wednesday that the meeting interruptions are a sign that Olympians no longer trust their elected officials, and the local Democrats are working to change that by getting people elected who keep promises. She referenced an October 2016 council-approved resolution that shows solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux.
Walsh contended that the city contradicted that resolution by allowing ceramic proppants, otherwise known as fracking sands, to be shipped through the Port of Olympia — although the Port of Olympia Commission governs the port, not the city. She also criticized the city’s role in removing fracking protesters from the railroad tracks in downtown Olympia in November.
The decisions aren’t just hers — she said there’s a consensus among local party leadership.
“The business that they were interrupting wasn’t the business of the people,” Walsh said.
Uriah Watkins of Just Housing told the council Tuesday he hopes that the ordinance won’t appear on a future agenda. He said the ordinance would prohibit the type of discourse that is important to democracy. It would, in effect, turn Olympia City Council meetings into “meetings without the city.”
“It comes across as very authoritarian, not democratic at all,” Watkins said.
“We want to work with you.”
Multiple speakers, including Beverly Bassett, referenced the U.S. Constitution, arguing that the ordinance would violate the First Amendment.
Bassett said the interruptions are due to the city government failing to represent its constituents.
“People have asked you for simple things, basic needs,” Bassett said. “And you don’t meet their basic needs. You find ways to block and silence them.”
Ty Gundel of Just Housing said her organization has been responsible for some of the meeting cancellations. She agreed with Bassett — many of the people who interrupt meetings do so because they don’t feel heard. She said her group makes sure to interrupt after people have had the chance to make public comments.
The proposal is modeled after an ordinance passed in a Connecticut community, said Kellie Purce Braseth, a city spokeswoman. That ordinance was tested and upheld by state courts.
The proposal would make it a misdemeanor to interrupt or disrupt a city meeting. If the ordinance passes, a person would be guilty of interference with a city meeting if he or she, alone or in a group, “knowingly and unreasonably disturbs, disrupts or interferes with any city meeting in a city location.”
Interruptive behavior includes:
- Engaging in violent, tumultuous, intimidating or threatening behavior
- Using abusive or obscene language
- Continuous or repeatedly yelling, shouting or making unreasonable noise
- Perfomaning any other act which unreasonably disturbs, disrupts or interferes with a city meeting
- Refusing to comply with a lawful order to leave a city location after having being given such an order by police, mayor, council members, staff, or volunteers who are presiding over a city meeting