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Iowa City Council unanimously rejects civil penalties for speakers violating meeting rules
‘I'm not comfortable having a punitive element to participating in our meetings,’ council member Laura Bergus says
IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Council unanimously voted against issuing municipal infractions to speakers who repeatedly violate council meeting rules.
The council during its formal meeting this week considered issuing municipal infraction citations to public commenters who continue being disruptive after other steps — including a verbal warning and directive to leave — have been taken.
Council member Laura Bergus started off council discussion during Tuesday’s meeting, saying there is “great value” in meetings being conducted in a respectful, civil way without the possibility of a citation or fine.
“When I asked for this civil citation, it was because we were going down the path, I thought, of criminalizing participation in our meetings, and that was not something that I was in favor of so I kind of offered it up as a less harsh alternative,” Bergus said. “But as I've just sat with this, I'm not comfortable having a punitive element to participating in our meetings.”
The council has been discussing meeting protocols since the beginning of the year after three residents used every public comment period during a meeting last December to ask for the council to hold hybrid meetings. The comments added about 90 minutes to the meeting.
The first work session of the year Jan. 4 began the discussion of how the council could address intentional disruptions from the public. This was also the meeting in which the council agreed to hold hybrid meetings, which have been offered since Jan. 18. Hybrid meetings give residents the chance to participate in public comment periods virtually.
Subsequent work sessions in January and February continued the discussion of meeting protocols. In February, council members backed away from a potential criminal charge.
City Attorney Eric Goers explained how a municipal infraction is a civil matter — not a criminal matter — and would be handled in small claims court. A financial penalty would be attached to the infraction: $100 for the first violation, $250 for the second and $500 for third and following violations.
City code does not currently allow issuing a citation for violating the rules, according to council documents in the agenda.
Over the course of meetings, council members heard concerns from the public about how having a penalty would decrease public participation and engagement.
During Tuesday’s public comment, Taylor Kohn said punitive measures will hurt the public, as well as the council’s relationship with the public. Kohn noted that current meeting rules already can be a barrier because they’re difficult to understand.
“An answer to reducing tension with the public in public comment periods is simply for you all to engage more,” Kohn said.
Council members echoed Kohn’s concerns about public participation, as well as additional concerns the public voiced during previous meetings.
Mayor Bruce Teague, the presiding officer responsible for enforcing meeting rules, said the council “should never get to this point of a municipal infraction” but said it could happen.
Teague brought up having other “tools in the toolbox” to help meetings run without disruption. The council can revisit the municipal infraction if another “tool” is needed after the council explores other avenues, Teague added.
Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter said the municipal infraction feels punitive even if it doesn’t go to a criminal level. Alter also said she’s heard from multiple residents that it’s frustrating when council members are not accessible outside city meetings.
“COVID shut us down,” Alter said. Before the pandemic, council members would have listening sessions and other informal events to engage with the public. A virtual listening post with Bergus and council member Shawn Harmsen was held Jan. 31.
Alter said there will be more opportunities to have back-and-forth conversations.
“I do believe that we all have a sincere desire to be able to engage with the public more,” Alter said.
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