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Stuckart abruptly ends City Council meeting amid criticism of sexual harassment handling

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 6, 2017, 10:58 p.m.

FILE - Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, addresses a forum Sept. 25, 2017 at City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, left, addresses a forum Sept. 25, 2017 at City Hall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Days after apologizing to a political ally for the way he handled her claim of sexual harassment, City Council President Ben Stuckart gaveled a meeting closed Monday addressing the issue, citing city rules.

Members of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, the Spokane chapter of the National Organization of Women and the Spokane Democratic Party testified before the panel during the open forum portion of the City Council’s regular meeting, when speakers get three minutes to address the council on a topic of their choosing. Audience members addressed the recent sexual harassment allegations brought forward by Kate Burke – a candidate for the Spokane City Council and benefactor of Stuckart – against Richard Rush, a former city employee, and her belief the council president and others in the community didn’t take her story seriously.

Erin Georgen took the podium last and began sharing her own story of harassment, when Stuckart indicated several times that her time had expired.

“We’re well over the three minutes,” Stuckart cut in.

“Let me finish,” Georgen said.

“No, Erin, then I have to let everybody go over,” Stuckart said.

As she continued speaking, Stuckart ended the meeting with his gavel. The council president said later he had to follow the rules and remain impartial in how he enforces them.

“Do I get to pick and choose who gets more time?” Stuckart asked.

Stuckart received criticism from political opponents when, in January 2015, he ended a meeting over objections to the city’s proposed nonbiased policing ordinance. A year later, Stuckart called for additional rules for the public forum portions of the meeting, limiting speakers to one appearance before the panel a month.

After Stuckart ended the meeting, council members quietly packed their belongings as many in the chambers, including Burke, remained standing. Most elected officials, including Stuckart, stayed as those in attendance mingled and shared their own stories.

Georgen said after the meeting she was there to answer comments made by City Councilman Mike Fagan in response to Burke’s story.

“I don’t think he cut me off because I had run out of time,” Georgen said of Stuckart. “He could have given me more time. I just think he cut me off because he could, and it makes him uncomfortable.”

Stuckart noted that the council rules allow for his colleagues to overrule his decision to end the meeting, but no one spoke up after the gavel came down. He also stressed that he called for the investigation into Rush’s behavior after allegations were made in March 2016. Rush was fired a few months later.

The council president has gaveled other meetings to a close in recent months, citing the city’s rules on public comments. In July, Stuckart suspended a meeting when George McGrath, a frequent commenter at council meetings, rose without being recognized to ask a question about a legislative item. McGrath was escorted from the room and the meeting resumed a few minutes later.

Ashley Torres, the acting president of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission, said that organization would meet Nov. 28 and invite the public to share their own stories of sexual harassment. The commission is working with members of the National Organization of Women, and the city’s human resources department, to institute a new sexual harassment policy and training at City Hall.