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Phillip Tutor: Let them speak, but only for 3 minutes

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Thursday crowd

Glen Ray is president of the Calhoun County NAACP chapter. If he wants to speak at Anniston City Council meetings, let him.

Ralph Bradford is Anniston’s unofficial town crier, except he delivers no news and doesn’t stand on a Noble Street corner ringing a handbell and wearing a tricorn hat -- though, given his personality, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. If he wants to speak at Anniston City Council meetings, let him.

James Montgomery is a former Anniston councilman and former candidate for the Calhoun County Commission. If he wants to speak at council meetings, let him.

But how often? For how long?

That’s the issue. But most everything in Anniston except Christmas and the weather gets marinated in acidic accusations of racism, and that’s happening here. A basic parliamentary question -- public-comment rules during council meetings -- is now Superglued to claims that the only reason City Hall may amend those rules are because Ray, Bradford, Montgomery and a few other frequent commenters are black.

Plus, Ray claims, white residents who comment during council meetings are allowed to speak longer than black residents. “That clock never moves (when white residents speak),” Ray has told The Star. “They say whatever they want to say and sit down.” Empirical proof has never been the NAACP president’s strong suit.

Of all the dilemmas the Draper City Hall has faced the last two years -- finding new office and meeting space, ramping up economic-development success, conducting city business amid an increasingly dysfunctional council lineup -- this one may be the thorniest. Mayor Jack Draper, a lawyer by trade, is going to need those skills to navigate a fair compromise between an abuse of the council’s time and residents’ right to speak publicly to their representatives.

Season-ticket holders to Anniston council meetings know the drill. They see it every other Tuesday.

Ray uses his public-comment time to accuse the city’s police department and the Calhoun County judicial system of systemic racism. Bradford uses his public-comment time to say the city’s council-manager form of government is illegal (which it isn’t) and voice myriad complaints about voting rights and a lack of racial equality. Montgomery, also obsessed by an opposition to Anniston’s form of government, has led repeated petition drives since at least the late 1990s to force a referendum on the matter. (Councilman David Reddick tried that, too; it didn’t turn out well.)

Boiled down, Draper’s problem is first-grade simple. Something has to go. No one enjoys meetings that drone on like a Grateful Dead show, and Anniston’s council meetings suffer from a two-headed dilemma: repetitive public comments that hijack proceedings and long-winded council discussions. Draper’s suggestion that he may impose a three-minute limit on residents’ formal public comments is a sound proposal, if only for this reason: “If the public comments last as long as the meeting itself, is that really a good use of everyone’s time?” Draper asked.

No, it’s not.

The shaky part of these repeated dominations of the public-comment time is that legal precedent allows Draper and City Manager Jay Johnson to consider not only commenters’ abuse of the clock, but also the repetitiveness of their topics. In a 2013 essay for the Freedom Forum Institute, First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. wrote that “(J)ust because something is called a public forum doesn’t guarantee a person unfettered freedom to utter whatever is on his mind. Public bodies can limit their meetings to specified subject matters.”

Additionally, “It bears stressing that First Amendment rights are not absolute during public-comment periods of open meetings. Speakers can be silenced if they are disruptive. Disruption has been defined to include far more than noisiness and interference.” And the punch line: “‘A speaker may disrupt a Council meeting by speaking too long, by being unduly repetitious, or by extending discussion of irrelevancies,’ the 9th Circuit wrote in White v. City of Norwalk. ‘The meeting is disrupted because the Council is prevented from accomplishing its business in a reasonably efficient manner. Indeed, such conduct may interfere with the rights of other speakers.’”

Translation: Boom!

Draper should quickly implement two changes: (1.) three minutes, heavily proctored, per speaker in both formal and informal comment periods; and (2.) allow individual speakers one public comment per month. That’s fair, equitable and sound. But Draper also must protect Ray and Bradford’s right to bring their grievances to the council.

Modern-day Anniston, remember, is a quirky place. We’re half black, half white, beset with deep pockets of poverty and a few neighborhoods where residents live in golden splendor. Our public-school population is almost entirely black, our violent crime rate is too high and people of a certain age still remember when those schools denied black children an equal chance. We also have a handful of residents dedicated to filibustering meetings and wasting the council’s time with factless crusades.

Let them speak, briefly.

And then get on with things.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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