Political experts comment on St. George’s decision to stop public comment at council meetings

Focus on balancing government interests with people’s rights and choose to uphold freedom of expression whenever possible, advises an expert.

St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead (left) urges crowds to “calm down,” “relax,” and “relax” at various times at a City Council meeting on May 4, 2023. This came after the mayor adjourned the session for unruly behavior.

St George • Freedom of expression or the maintenance of public order, which is most important?

That’s what political pundits are speaking out about after St George’s Mayor Michele Randall recently decided to curb rudeness by scrapping the public comment section at the first city council meeting of every month.

[Related: After disruptions and accusations of being ‘woke,’ St. George mayor axes public comment]

Former Mayor Jon Pike introduced the oral public comment period about a decade ago. Randall declined to comment publicly outside of public hearings on specific issues, attributing her decision to growing dissension and rudeness at council meetings, particularly from residents who want to rant and rant about “social issues” that have little or nothing to do with to do community affairs.

Randall’s decision sparked significant backlash from some residents at the May 4 City Council meeting, who accused her and the council members of violating their oath of office by curtailing the public’s First Amendment right to free speech, and the called for the mayor to be removed from office.

Vince Brown, director of Utah Tech University’s Department of Public Policy, is taking no part in the dispute, but says he understands the mayor’s frustration, having seen residents objecting and making allegations about issues unrelated to the city economy had to do.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute requirement, he said. Like any right, it comes with associated responsibilities and may be subject to government restrictions.

“When people yell, when they make irrelevant comments, when they disrupt the gathering, we have a fundamental customary right, a constitutional right that says that restrictions of time, place and behavior are appropriate when the government has an interest in the restriction [speech]’ Brown said.

“The government has an interest in getting its business done,” he continued. “To what extent does this interest limit freedom of expression? Well, that’s the balance we’re always looking for.”

Brown’s advice on the matter: Focus on balancing the interests of government with the rights of the people, and choose to uphold freedom of speech whenever possible. He also says some residents need a refresher course on government.

“A lot of people are upset about the things that are happening nationally and that entails [anger] to the city council or the state legislature,” he said. “[People] shifting these national struggles to the local level where it is not really appropriate.”

St. George’s executives aren’t the only ones hit by public hostility and rudeness on the business side.

“It’s happening at all levels of government — local, state, and congressmen have this problem,” said Zoe Nemerever, assistant professor of political science at Utah Valley University.

Aside from the negative effects rudeness has on public gatherings, Nemerever said it also serves to discourage good people from running for office and becoming civil servants. She characterizes the arguments at the St. George council meetings, whose members are all registered Republicans, as similar to their Arizona counterparts.

“It’s probably quite similar to Arizona Republican culture, where you have people like Kari Lake versus more moderate, traditional Republicans,” she said.

Lake lost the 2022 Arizona governor race to Democrat Katie Hobbs, which angered many voters by refusing to admit defeat and filing a lawsuit to overturn the election. She also spread the “big lie” that Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

Nemerever said the refusal of some elected officials to condemn such behavior has contributed to the proliferation and acceptance of rudeness and other improper behavior as many Americans align themselves with “elite” like elected officials.

Fortunately, St. George’s troubles had little impact on neighboring towns. Washington City Mayor Kress Staheli said his city made public comments at council meetings years ago.

“The only thing I could remember from that public comment from years ago was local residents talking about feral cats and things like that or nobody showing up,” said Staheli, who was on the city council at the time. “So I think it kind of fizzled out.”

Land issues in nearby Ivins have caused an occasional public uproar, but Mayor Chris Hart said he’s being pretty strict and not letting things get out of hand. On several occasions, he said, the council chambers were packed, and the foyer and outside of the building were crowded with crowds, some carrying placards.

“If there’s a group with signs, I say, ‘Okay, now hold up your signs so we can see who you are and what you’re thinking, and that’s the last time we want to see them.’ And so are they [put them away].”

Justin Scaccy

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