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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Anonymity, limited testimony and an end to standing: Spokane City Council changes open forum rules

Pro-Palestinian activists stand and turn their backs during testimony by a member of the public who called them “modern-day Holocaust deniers” in City Council chambers on Monday.  (Emry Dinman/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane City Council significantly changed its public testimony rules Monday night, including by banning audience members from standing to show support or displeasure.

The council also voted to move open forum to the end of Monday meetings, limit testimony to strictly city matters and formally allow people to testify anonymously, among other changes.

Proponents on the City Council argued the changes are necessary to limit disruptive behavior and to prevent open forum testimony from delaying legislative affairs later into the night. Dozens in attendance testified for nearly 52 minutes almost universally in opposition to the rule changes, arguing that they limited public input.

The council approved the changes with a 4-2 vote, with Councilmen Michael Cathcart and Paul Dillon voting in opposition. Dillon attempted to make an amendment to keep open forum at the beginning of the City Council’s meetings but had no support at the dais for the proposal.

The public can comment during the City Council’s Monday evening legislative meetings during two distinct periods.

People can address specific legislative items after they’re introduced but before the City Council votes on them, a process with relatively few limitations that will remain largely unchanged.

Previously, the City Council also started its Monday meetings with an open forum period when anyone could speak their minds about any issue not up for consideration or a vote, such as unaddressed problems facing the city, a previous Council action or anything else, including global affairs.

Until Monday’s vote, 15 people were able to speak at each week’s meeting for up to 2 minutes apiece, with priority given to the first to sign up and those who have not spoken at a prior meeting that month. Monday’s changes move the open forum period to the end of the meeting, increases the total number of speakers to 20 and limit testimony to specifically city matters.

Shifting open forum to the end of the night divided speakers at Monday’s meeting, with those who frequently attend meetings in order to testify during this period arguing it would bar those with families and early morning responsibilities from being able to participate. Others, including every council member other than Dillon, believed the length of open forum created the same issues for people who wanted to testify on a timely matter of pending legislation.

On Monday night, the last vote didn’t occur until roughly 10:30 p.m., 4½ hours after the meeting began. Open forum lasted roughly 38 minutes; the vast majority of testimony occurred at other periods in the evening.

One of the more hotly debated changes was a ban on allowing members of the public from standing in solidarity or turning their backs on speakers, including council members or other members of the public.

Azalyn Croft said that standing silently is often the only way some members of the public felt comfortable expressing their opinions in City Hall, saying she has been harassed and had her personal information published in an attempt to silence her.

“As a hijabi woman, coming to City Council to speak is often something I dread because of this,” Croft said. “I completely understand why many people feel unsafe coming to City Council and worry for their safety and putting their full name on a recorded video for bad actors to use against them.

“Therefore, standing may be the only safe way our community members have to participate in our community’s decision making.”

A majority of council members disagreed. Several weeks earlier, the City Council’s Policy Director, Chris Wright, stated that the changes were being made “not simply because we don’t like people standing up, this is disruptive …”

Councilman Zack Zappone pointed to rules for audience members in the state capitol, arguing that the city’s rules were less strict and well within its rights to limit behavior in council chambers.

Left-leaning activists who would stand by the dozens, many of whom have packed council chambers in recent months in opposition to an Oct. 9 resolution in support of Israel, felt the changes to public testimony were a reactionary attempt to specifically quash their dissent.

“If this system was working the way we’re told it does, our engagement here at city council would be seen as a success,” said Zachary McGuckin, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and a frequent speaker at City Hall. “It would not be seen as something that needs to be restricted or stopped or punished.”

An earlier failed attempt to limit public testimony came in response to the organized testimony of pro-Palestinian activists such as McGuckin and Croft who disagree with the Spokane City Council’s Oct. 9 resolution in support of Israel. The lion’s share of slots during open forum have frequently been taken up by opponents to this resolution in recent months.

In an attempt to prevent any single issue from taking up open forum each week, Council President Betsy Wilkerson had pushed to limit open forum to once per month, while expanding the number of speakers to 40.

The proposal fizzled out shortly after it became public, however, in direct response to unfavorable public response.

People can sign up several days earlier to testify at Monday meetings, but instead of giving priority to the first people who sign up, speakers will be chosen at random from the sign-up sheet.

Speakers will also no longer be asked to provide their true first and last names in order to testify, a rule that had not been enforced since last summer, when council members clashed with Dave Miller, who signed up repeatedly as “Dave M” and declined to give his last name.

At times, he had been allowed earlier in the year to testify regardless, but last summer the council repeatedly debated whether to allow him to speak.

In August, Miller filed an ethics complaint against a number of council members, claiming his rights had been infringed. He withdrew that complaint weeks later, only after then-Council President Lori Kinnear agreed to allow him to testify without providing his full name.

“I chose not to pursue that for anyone because it became more of an issue than felt it was worth at the time, and we had bigger things to consider than Dave using his last name,” Kinnear, whose term on the council ended late last year, said in an interview earlier this month.

Kinnear still said she believed that requiring speakers to provide their full names was important.

“It was very much about people being on the record for whatever they were saying, and when you’re anonymous, the weight of what you say is greatly diminished,” Kinnear said. “You don’t have the courage of your convictions.”