How to Deal with Bullying and Other Forms of Silencing at Local Government Meetings

There has been an ongoing dispute in North Haven about the infill of new Middle School playing fields. The content of the dispute principally involves safety and the cost of alternatives (up front and on an ongoing basis). But at least as important are issues involving the process of how this dispute has been handled. These issues affect not only this dispute, but all disputes, because the way disputes are handled can make it difficult to have fair discussions and resolutions of disputes, even in a Town Meeting town such as North Haven.

The principal issues are (1) the shouting, jeering, and interrupting of those in the audience who take the same side as the town’s First Selectman, (2) the extra time given to sympathetic speakers (including town officials and town attorneys, who tend to present a one-sided view of issues rather than fairly presenting the issues), and (3) the prohibition of public input at committee workshops (unofficial public comments at one such workshop had to wait 13 days to appear in an article).

It is difficult for most people to speak in public, especially in dissent, but there are few people willing and able to speak in public when they are shouted at, made fun of, and otherwise bullied and interrupted, especially with the apparent support of the individuals in power. When this happens at a Board of Selectmen meeting on the topic of whether to hold a Town Meeting (as at this particular meeting), it is especially inappropriate.

What can be done? If the board or committee chair (in this case the First Selectman) either refuses to or is unable to bring order to a meeting, and other members of the board or committee do little or nothing, one or more responsible citizens must take over the meeting and insist on respectful silence. It may take multiple occasions (at one meeting and over a period of time) for people who have for years engaged in bullying tactics to be willing to be silent. But it is likely that, if someone else keeps bringing order to a meeting, the board or committee chair will be shamed into doing it herself.

But this will work only if progressives both attend meetings and watch each other’s back. The individual who has the floor should not have to stop such bullying tactics, nor should any speaker have to demand equal time or that officials respond to their questions (failure to respond is just another way of preventing citizens from getting information that will allow them to effectively make their arguments).

If the speaker is interrupted or refused a response, someone else should raise a hand and say, “Point of Order.” That individual should insist on silence, or equal time, or an answer to a question that has been asked. If a member of the board or committee says something inappropriate to a speaker, another individual should rise and say that it was inappropriate, demanding an apology, if no other board or committee member does so.

This is not just about civility. This is about abuse of power and failure to keep order when it is in the interest of those in power. There are occasions where civility is not required of those without power, for example, when they are told they cannot speak until after a vote (speaking after a vote is of little value). In such a situation, dissenters should rise as a group and demand speaking time. They should not let the meeting continue, even if it means that the chair might ask the police to remove them. This interruption by citizens does not involve bullying other citizens; it is an interruption of officials who have abused their position by not allowing public comment.

If there are official rules that prohibit public comment, or allow it only at the end of a meeting, dissenters should demand that the rules be put on the agenda and debated. Until this occurs, as many people as possible should attend meeting after meeting, forcing the news media to recognize the harm these rules cause.

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