Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson said he was unaware of constitutional prohibitions when he warned speakers to refrain from “personal attacks” during a public hearing last week, but he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.
Two critics of the proposed Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan, Susan Scott and Mary Pollard, say they found Munson’s conduct during a hearing on the plan intimidating.
Munson’s admonition about personal attacks was similar to a standing rule at Palouse City Council meetings that generated an admonition in March from Washington’s open government ombudsman, Assistant Attorney General Timothy Ford.
“I stand corrected,” Palouse Mayor Michael Echanove told the Boomerang community newspaper after receiving the March 24 letter from Ford.
Echanove routinely had told speakers during City Council public forum periods that the council wouldn’t “entertain any comments regarding personnel issues of city staff.”
“The ability of citizens to voice their opinions about the performance of the public employees and officials who serve the public is one of the cornerstones of a free and accountable government,” Ford wrote in his letter to Echanove.
Criticism of government employees may irritate city officials, but it is protected by the U.S. and Washington constitutions, Ford wrote.
Munson’s warning against personal attacks was part of a plea for civility at the beginning of a public hearing that drew about 140 people. People who didn’t follow the rules would be asked to sit down, he said.
“Mrs. Scott, you’re getting close to being asked to sit down,” Munson said when Scott criticized Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan manager Scott Kuhta without naming him.
Scott complained that it was “a small detail according to your planner in charge of the SARP” that the plan wasn’t consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.
“I think he was clearly irritated with my comments, and I think he was clearly trying to intimidate me and anyone else in the crowd from speaking up,” Scott said in an interview. “I think his opening comments at the beginning of the hearing could be construed as a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution, which protect free speech.”
Scott said she believes Munson was “trying to limit down any criticism of government employees.”
Pollard, a Greenacres neighborhood activist who frequently criticizes the city in public meetings, said she was reluctant to present her comments about the Sprague-Appleway plan after Munson’s warning to Scott.
The remark prompted loud protests from the audience before Munson banged his gavel and directed Scott to “please proceed.”
“He clearly put a damper on free speech,” Pollard said afterward.
Munson noted he didn’t ask Scott to sit down.
“I let her continue, so I didn’t break anybody’s rules,” Munson said. “I just warned her, but I didn’t do that.”
Still, Ford said in an interview that Munson’s conduct seems analogous to Echanove’s.
“Any policy prohibiting comment on a specific topic would have serious constitutional implications,” Ford wrote in his letter to Echanove.
He cited a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a New Mexico case in which criticism of the Grant County manager was prohibited during a county commission meeting.
“The court found that the restriction was unreasonable, an attempt to silence opinions and a pretext for censorship,” Ford wrote.
However, he said cities may limit comments “in a neutral manner,” such as setting time or noise limits. Comments may be stifled if they are off topic and not invited by a general public forum, Ford said.
Also, he noted the Washington Open Public Meetings Act allows people who are disruptive to be removed.
A federal appeals court decision allows some personal attacks, such as gratuitous insults, to be prohibited if they are disruptive. Ford cautioned, though, that such a ban can’t apply to comments about “substantive” ideas.
“Personal insults should not be confused with insulting criticism over the conduct of public officials or employees,” Ford told Echanove.
Munson said he doesn’t think Ford’s informal legal opinion will have much effect on the way he conducts meetings.
“The worst thing we can do is get in a shouting match and start calling each other names,” he said.