(Sept. 20, 2013) City Hall is apparently cracking down on what is seen as disruptive or un-productive behavior during council meetings, although those affected are clearly skeptical about the motivations of the authorities.
Local activist and frequent council critic Ellie Diegelmann was asked to leave Monday night’s meeting by the attending police officer, after applauding in response to comments made by another citizen to the council.
Diegelmann clapped her hands for only a few seconds before ceasing. However, the Ocean City Police Department officer who was detailed to monitor the council meeting then approached Diegelmann’s seat.
“He told me, ‘The council president says you have to leave,’” Diegelmann said following the meeting. She and the officer then went into the hallway, where Diegelmann says she asked why she was being removed and if she could come back in.
“He wouldn’t tell me why I was being asked to leave, but he said that everyone gets two warnings, and the third time he would have to arrest me,” Diegelmann said.
She then came back into the council chambers to get her notes, which she had left on her chair. Diegelmann then began to waive her arms in the air, the intent of which was to get the council’s attention and, hopefully, have them ask the officer to allow her to stay.
“After I waived my arms to get their attention, [the officer] said ‘that’s two,’” Diegelmann said. She subsequently left.
Council President Lloyd Martin said he made eye contact with the officer, as he often does in regard to particularly rowdy public comments, but did not specifically desire that she be removed.
“I looked at the officer and the officer looked at me when she was waving her arms around,” Martin said. “We don’t want people doing stuff like that. I did see that [Diegelmann and the officer] were having a back-and-forth in the hallway, but I don’t know what was said.”
At least one member of council, Brent Ashley, seemed to be skeptical of the response.
“Can’t we just give her a warning or something?” Ashley asked Martin as Diegelmann left.
“How can I give her a break when I don’t’ know what was going on?” Martin asked rhetorically after the meeting.
The debate over public comments themselves has political overtones. Many speakers, including Diegelmann, are frequent critics of the council’s current majority. Her applause, Diegelmann said, was in response to fellow citizen Herb Pawlukewicz berating the council for its concern over the time and effort allotted to council critic Tony Christ’s financial data requests.
The council had little concern, Pawlukewicz said, over more politically favorable projects such as union negotiations.
Ashley, an opponent of the current council majority, also remarked to Martin that he “hoped this would apply to everyone” after Diegelmann was asked to leave for clapping.
His comment, Ashley said, pertained in particular to representatives from Citizens for Ocean City, a political group supportive of the current majority that swept the 2012 elections. The organization frequently made raucous appearances at council meetings leading up to the polls.
“I wasn’t the council president then,” said Martin, who was selected for the post after the 2012 elections. “That wasn’t me. I’m not going to do everything exactly the way everyone wants it, but I’m going to try to make it better.”
Martin said he was also well aware of the political rivalry involved.
“The last time [Citizens for Ocean City Spokesman] Joe Groves was up here, he didn’t like me cutting him off,” Martin said. “I just don’t want people clapping for the ‘good guys’ or booing for the ‘bad guys.’ We need to get things done. People holding grudges doesn’t work.”
OCPD Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal said that officers observe the same enforcement in council meetings as they do in any other public facility.
“This applies to any public building,” O’Neal wrote in an email. “If a person is disrupting normal business operations and preventing productivity, then our officers can remove that person so that productivity can return to normalcy.
“It is a worst-case scenario that a person can be arrested and that would typically come after numerous warnings. If it did escalate to that point, that person would be charged with disorderly conduct.”
During strategic planning sessions this past winter, the council and City Manager David Recor pledged to bring more organization and decorum to city meetings.
Part of this involved re-arranging the public comments portion of weekly council meetings, with comments on Tuesday work sessions occurring at the beginning of the meeting and being restricted only to matter germane to the day’s agenda.
Comments were also initially moved to the beginning of Monday meetings, but were moved back to the ends of the meetings earlier this year given the excessive length of some public commentary.
Although theoretically limited to five minutes apiece, the council has let speakers go longer to discuss particularly urgent projects. During the uproar over paid parking additions in May, some Monday night comment periods lasted over two hours, tying up city staff who were waiting to discuss items later on in the agenda.