Cops Called to City Council Meeting: Updated With Video
Who knew that debating zoning changes and the maximum building height in Burlington could be a spectator sport?
Or, that Roberts Rules of Order can be enforced by the police?
About 50 people were inside Contois Auditorium tonight to hear The Burlington City Council debate a host of issues related to downtown development and on-campus housing and development at the University of Vermont and Champlain College.
Three Burlington City police officers were called to Contois Auditorium after a testy exchange between two Democratic city councilors — David Berezniak (Ward 2) and Ed Adrian (Ward 1) — and Republican City Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) threatened to put a halt to yet another evening of debate on several major issues.
Councilors Berezniak and Adrian made repeated requests for "points of order" and "points of information" which angered Wright and clearly frustrated other councilors. Wright and others were convinced the Democrats were pulling procedural stunts to derail discussion on whether to publicly warn a hearing on changes to the city's zoning rules.
Those new rules would allow commercial buildings to top 127 feet and residential buildings to top 105 feet, an increase opposed by Democrats. At Monday night's regularly scheduled council meeting, the panel's five Democrats refused to agree to "suspend the rules" and allow the meeting to go past 10:30 p.m. Going into tonight's meeting, many councilors believed the Democrats would continue to do whatever it took to derail the plan as they didn't have the votes to outright reject the measure.
"You are not going to continue with this," said Wright to Berezniak and Adrian after roughly 10 minutes of back and forth between Adrian, Berezniak, Wright and City Attorney Ken Schatz. At times, Democrats cut off speakers with requests before being called upon by Wright (as is customary).
"No councilor is simply going to speak into the microphone without being called on," Wright chastized the Dems at one point. "You will not speak until recognized ... have some respect for the system."
Wright then asked Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2) to outline the zoning change, and an amendment she hoped would assuage Democratic concerns that the building heights were too high.
Still, Democrats raised continuous objections and questions about the way in which the vote was being held, whether the night's agenda was proper, and if it was even valid motion. As tensions began to rise, Wright called for a five-minute recess.
At that time, Wright then called city police to Contois Auditorium. Within 15 minutes, two uniformed police officers were standing at the back of the room. Within a half hour a third officer was onhand.
Officers stayed in City Hall for about an hour while debate on the zoning amendment ensued.
After debate ended on the zoning amendment, Adrian asked of Wright, "Why are the cops here?"
Wright said, "We are going to continue this meeting, and if we continue to have disruptions the people making the disruptions will be removed."
Yikes. Now I know why Republicans are the party of law and order.
Actually, according to Robert's Rules of Order a governing body can eject someone from a meeting. Here's the section in its entirety:
73. Right of an Assembly to Eject any one from its Place of Meeting. Every deliberative assembly has the right to decide who may be present during its session; and when the assembly, either by a rule or by a vote, decides that a certain person shall not remain in the room, it is the duty of the chairman to enforce the rule of order, using whatever force is necessary to eject the party.
However, it appears as if there is nothing in Robert's Rules that allows a presiding officer to potentially have an elected official removed without an investigation and trial by the entire voting body.
"Kurt called them in as a scare tactic to limit councilor debate. Only the council can remove a fellow councilor by a two-thirds vote under Robert's Rules," Adrian noted.
After about an hour of debate, the city council did agree — by a 10 to 3 vote — to increase building height for commercial buildings to nine stories, or 115 feet, and for residential buildings to eight stories, or 99 feet. This is a lower height than originally proposed, which was 106 feet for residential and 127 feet for commercial. A public hearing on the zoning change will be held at the March 30 city council meeting.
At the end of the meeting, Adrian questioned Wright's move to call police to the auditorium.
"I for one find it discouraging Mr. president that you called the police here," said Adrian. "There is a procedure under Robert's Rules [to expel members]." Having police in attendance was used to "basically intimidate councilors."
City Attorney Ken Schatz told councilors that making a point of order, per se, was not a disruption, but he did say it was within the presiding officer's authority to preserve order. He also said there is a process for council members to challenge the ruling of a presiding officer.
In other words, tempers may have gotten the best of everyone.
After the meeting, Wright told Seven Days that called the police to the meeting because he believed it possible the meeting would devolve into procedural maneuvers rather than open debate. "It was really my nuclear option, and I was hoping I would never have to use that option at all, and I'm glad we didn't have to," he said. "But, I wanted to make sure that we were going to have a debate tonight."
Something tells me tonight's debate is just the beginning of a whole new debate on the city council.
FRIDAY MORNING UPDATE:
The fur is still flying from last night's raucous Burlington City Council meeting. This morning Ward 1 Councilor Ed Adrian — one of two councilors allegedly targeted for possible removal by police — circulated a copy of the police report from one of the officers called to Contois last night. And what does it say? That the police were there to help Council President Kurt Wright haul away councilors if necessary.
Wright denies he would have removed a councilor for making "parliamentary maneuvers" but says he would have removed one for disrupting the meeting.
Here, in its entirety, is Lt. Emmett Helrich's incident report (I've confirmed the veracity of this report with Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling):
"City Council President Kurt Wright called to say that he would like police presence as there had been some disruptive behavior on the part of some in attendance prior to the break. Cpl. Edwards and I went to Contois. Wright told me that Councilors Adrian and Bresniak [sp] had been disrupting the council meeting to the point that he might be compelled, as a point of order, to have them removed from Contois. Some in attendance had said that it had been quite disruptive prior to our arrival. Nothing happened after we got there and remained orderly until after the proposed amendment in question had been voted on. (raising the height of buildings in the city) At one point Councilor Adrian asked President Wright why the police were there and Wright told him he had called for police in case the members continued to be disruptive.
"After the vote we left as it was clear our presence was not needed."
Adrian said he was circulating the incident report to show that Wright called the police for no other reason than "to remove councilors that he thought were disruptive ... in particular myself and Councilor Berezniak."
Adrian reasserted his belief that Wright was "manipulating the police to intimidate city councilors from speaking and asserting their parliamentary rights."
This morning, Wright again expressed disagreement that his actions were out of line. Rather, he said, it was Adrian and Berezniak who were being disruptive and obstructing the council from doing its business.
"Ed or any other councilor would not have been removed for 'parliamentary maneuvers,' but if they had insisted on continuing to disrupt the meeting so that we couldn't carry on our business, then possibly," said Wright. "It was about preventing a disruption I had been warned might happen."
It's increasingly clear that the the "disruptions" last night irked many councilors — or at least those who are not Democrats.
At the end of the meeting, Councilor Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3) said he had never seen councilors so out of control, disrespectful of the institution itself and disorderly. He was talking about Adrian and Berezniak — not Wright. Other councilors echoed Ashe's sentiments after the meeting broke up.
Outgoing Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2), who was interrupted several times by Councilors Adrian and Berezniak, said she had never seen such antics at a council meeting.
"In my 14 years on the council, I've never seen such an unprofessional and disrespectful display," said Knodell. "The whole meeting was breaking down, no one knew what they would try to do next, and I think that the council president did the right thing by asking for [police] presence. To say that this was 'intimidating' or that it stifled debate is absurd. Let's be very clear: They didn't have the votes, so they tried to shut down our democratic process. End of story."
As I noted last night, I think this is very, very far from "end of story."
Have the comments here whetted your appetite for more? Well, Channel 17 taped the controversial meeting Thursday night, and the recording is now available to view on their website, right here.
As you review the video, consider this complaint filed yesterday by Councilor David Berezniak (D-Ward 2), who is one of the councilors named in the police report as a source of the "disruptions" detailed by Council President Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4).
At the end of the meeting, City Attorney Ken Schatz was asked if calling the police was an appropriate way to keep order. (See the original post above for a summary of Schatz's response.)
Here is Berezniak's complaint, in its entirety:
I am formalizing the complaint I expressed to you at last night's 3/12/09 "special" City Council meeting. As I stated to you, I was intimidated from participating in the debate of the issues after being informed that Council President Wright determined questions on points of order would be considered "disruptive" and further undefined "disruptions" would be dealt with by physical removal by the Burlington police. Under these threats my only recourse as an elected representative of our city with a responsibility to be present was to remain silent, thus depriving my constituents of their voice on the issues. In my mind this raises questions about all that occurred at last night's meeting after the recess. Your advice on this serious matter is very much appreciated.
David J. Berezniak
City Councilor, ward 2