George McGrath may not be known to many people, but for those who attend Spokane City Council meetings, he’s all too familiar.
For the past decade, McGrath has regularly attended the weekly meetings, invariably lambasting the council for wasting taxpayer money, being political animals out of step with their constituents and, most recently, decrying Planned Parenthood, which he calls “murder incorporated.”
But McGrath’s days of being the familiar curmudgeon in an Elmo sweater may end, as the City Council considers limiting people who speak at open forum to just once a month. As it is, anyone can speak during the weekly public forum, which occurs at the beginning and end of council meetings.
The rule change is scheduled to be discussed and voted on Jan. 4, and also bars “profanity, vulgar language or personal insults,” which it hadn’t before. The change won’t affect public comment rules for individual pieces of legislation.
Council President Ben Stuckart said it’s McGrath and people like him who abuse the open forum, and have turned it into an unwelcoming opportunity to hear foul language.
“When it’s dominated by the same six or seven people, other people don’t feel comfortable coming down to testify,” Stuckart said. “Some people see it as very negative. They don’t want to come down to testify and listen to the same eight people, so they don’t come down to participate.”
Before Stuckart took over as the council’s leader, open forum was relegated to the end of the meeting, leading to gripes from people who could wait for hours just to get their closely scrutinized three minutes of speaking time. Stuckart moved part of the forum to the front of the meeting, fulfilling a campaign promise. Another campaign idea to hold monthly “community forums,” where he would answer questions from anyone who showed up, was canceled after three months.
“Not one person came,” Stuckart said.
Still, the proposal to limit open forum doesn’t sit well with McGrath, whose opposition to the proposed University District bicycle-pedestrian bridge led him afoul of the council when he began calling it, on a weekly basis at one point, the “Bridge to Hookerville.”
“Ben is acting as though this is a royal fiat instead of a political decision,” said McGrath, who tried to join the council in 2007 but failed to get enough votes to move past the primary. “He is controlling speech one way or the other. He tried to get me to quit talking about murder incorporated down here, but he backed off on that.”
Earlier this year, McGrath, 79, was escorted by a police officer out of council chambers for not relinquishing the microphone after Stuckart attempted to end the meeting prematurely in response to a rowdy crowd that wouldn’t heed his calls to be silent.
At the time, McGrath accused Stuckart of limiting free speech, and he reiterated that accusation this week.
“Who is saying that we have the right as a City Council to control the speech of the people of Spokane?” McGrath said. “The forum is designed for one purpose, and that is for the citizens to speak their minds on issues that are not on the current or the next meeting’s agenda.”
Stuckart dismissed such thinking.
“It’s not a right. It’s a privilege” to speak during council meetings, Stuckart said, noting that Madison, Wisconsin, and Berkeley, California, don’t have open forums during their meetings.
“They just don’t do them,” Stuckart said. “Some cities do open forum once a month.”
Stuckart said he valued open forum because it allows concerns to be aired that council members may not have otherwise heard. It also lets people not only speak to the council, but also to those in attendance or watching from home.
Limiting the forum may get rid of its negative reputation, Stuckart said. Such a reputation stretches back to the days of Council President Joe Shogan, who was known to debate, sometimes hotly, with people who spoke.
“We might get more people coming down to talk to us about issues,” Stuckart said.
McGrath said he wasn’t surprised at the proposal but vowed to keep testifying.
“They ignore you anyway. This is just another way so there won’t be discussion and disagreement from the public,” McGrath said. “I’m not going to let that group of idiots control my speech. No way in hell. No way in hell.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.