At Monday evening’s Glen Rose City Council meeting, heads were turning, but not towards the council.
During a discussion about hiring a city administrator and coming up with the best wording for a job description, former Councilman Tom Osborn began asking questions and challenging council members.
The discussion began when Dennis Moore, who presided over the meeting, said that he was concerned that in a previous job description presented to the council last month, the mayor had been left out of the reporting structure and job accountability.
“I think the mayor should be put back in that,” he said.
Then ensued another long discussion about the role of the mayor and the council in overseeing a city administrator.
City Council member Sandra Ramsay said the mayor acts as a liaison between the city administrator and the council.
Wouldn’t that make the city administrator answer to two supervisors, Osborn wanted to know.
As council members continued their discussion, Osborn kept interrupting.
“This is a discussion with the council and not with the audience,” Ramsay said. “This is an action item.”
But Osborn kept jumping in, barking out questions and comments from the back row where he usually sits during council meetings.
Some people attending the meeting told me afterward they found Osborn’s behavior “rude,” especially because he didn’t even show the council members the courtesy to stand up. And he was loud.
On the other hand, the council has established rules that citizens comments are reserved for the first minutes of council meetings. Moreover, no one is allowed to comment on any subject that is on the current agenda. So Osborn would not have been allowed to speak during that allotted time about the city administrator job description.
The council often allows citizens to ask questions from the spectator seating area. The person asking the question is often asked to stand up or come to the lectern and state his or her name for the record.
Some citizens told me they felt that the council, because Osborn was a former member and has been known to challenge the status quo on numerous occasions, was using a “double standard” by letting him ask questions directly to council members and have a conversation with them as if he were still sitting on the council.
Why didn’t anyone on the council ask him to come forward or stand, identify himself as everyone else is asked to do, and ask his questions?
Osborn, who had been appointed to fill out the remainder of former council member Barbara Mitchell, was defeated in the election earlier this year. He can be intimidating, to be sure, but that does that mean the council should treat him differently?
But it’s a small town and almost everyone knows each other. A certain amount of informality inevitably creeps into public meetings. Yet I noticed that Karen Richardson, whom everyone on the council knows, went to the podium and identified herself at the meeting when she presented a proposal on behalf of the Preservation Board to recognize outstanding preservation work performed on a city property.
What’s also at stake here is an individual’s First Amendment rights.
To what extent do we reign in free speech? Do we limit it in any way or do we let people vent or ask questions or make comments freely?
One reason the council and other governing bodies reserve a time for citizens comments is to allow for that and to prevent meetings from turning into a free-for-all with no order. But is that, in effect, confining citizens’ rights to speak? After all, it’s their government. They paid for the building that houses Town Hall or the Commissioners Court or the school district.
Some people will follow decorum at meetings and politely raise their hands and ask a question. Others will simply bellow out a question or make comments to the person sitting next to them. When things get loud, I’ve heard the mayor gavel the crowd “to order.”
But wasn’t it disorder that brought this country’s independence and the First Amendment to begin with?
The bottom line is that some folks don’t want to feel like meek sheep when it comes to interacting with their elected representatives. They want to challenge officials and the decision-making process when they disagree. They don’t care about rules of decorum. Should they be gaveled down and asked not to speak? Or told to address their questions after the meeting?
These are tough questions and opinions no doubt will vary. But they need to be asked because they go to the heart of our democratic process. What do you think? Post your thoughts on our Facebook page.