By Jeff Harrison
Midwest City leaders are tightening rules at city council meetings.
The council during a Dec. 13 meeting approved a resolution that limits non-residents from speaking during the public comments portion of meetings.
Under the new rules, only residents and people doing business in or with the city will be allowed to speak during city council meetings. The council may also allow non-residents to speak on a matter that directly impacts them.
The resolution also created a time limit on public comments, allows the mayor or chair to remove individuals if they become disorderly, and restructures how the council takes action on agenda items.
The council passed the resolution by a 6-0 vote. Councilwoman Sara Bana abstained from the vote.
Mayor Matt Dukes said the new rules are in direct response to a Sept. 27 city council meeting. The six-hour meeting included several items related to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council and Oklahoma County jail trust. Bana and fellow members of the People’s Council for Justice Reform pushed the city to not renew its contract with CJAC. That came in the form of heated back-and-forth discussions with city leaders, lengthy public comments and outburst from the crowd.
The council ultimately sided with the group and did not renew the contract with CJAC.
During a portion of the meeting, councilmembers abruptly closed public comments after a member of the People’s Council for Justice Reform insinuated wrongdoing by the council. The claim was never verified. A video from the exchange went viral online and led to numerous personal attacks and threats against city council members and staff.
Several residents spoke out against Bana and members of the People’s Council for Justice for their actions during the meeting and called on city leaders to enforce rules of order.
“It was realized that we had to take some action to maintain the decorum of our meetings,” Dukes said. “We have a moral and fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Midwest City to ensure that our meetings are conducted in a professional and businesslike manner. If we do not, anything we do comes into question and could be called into court.”
Dukes said several people asked him why the city allows non-residents to speak at meetings. He said he was initially unsure if the city could restrict non-residents from public comments.
City Attorney Don Maisch researched the request and presented legal precedent for limiting public comments for non-residents. He said the Oklahoma Association of Municipal Attorneys agreed with Maisch’s research.
The council discussed several portions of the resolution.
They agreed to modify the time limit for public comments. The council will allow each speaker 4 minutes, but can allot additional time if necessary.
Bana disagreed with limits on public comments, arguing it alienates numerous groups including Tinker Air Force Base personnel, Rose State students, homeless people, tourists, among others.
“Based on information I received, we could become the first municipality in the metro area to make such a policy,” she said.
Dukes said that military personnel and residents at Tinker Air Force Base have representation on base. And students at Rose State have representation as well.
“It all boils down to the fact of who we represent which is the taxpayers of Midwest City,” he said.
Dukes added that people with a vested interest in the community can come to the council unimpeded.
Councilman Pat Byrne suggested providing some discretion in the rules. He said non-residents should be allowed to speak with a majority vote by the council.
“I support it as it’s written, but I think we need to be in position to make some adjustments to make it work,” Byrne said.
Bana also questioned the city’s requirement that any speakers provide their address during public comments. She said that creates privacy concerns especially among victims of domestic violence.
Byrne, who is a retired Oklahoma City police officer, agreed with those concerns and suggested allowing people to verify their address with the city clerk privately if they wish to speak at a meeting.
The council approved the modifications to resolution.
Members of the People’s Council for Justice, who were present at the Sept. 27 meeting, requested to speak on the item but were shut down following the resolution’s passage. Several of the group members shouted and yelled obscenities at the council and refused to leave the council chambers. Chief Sid Porter and officers later cleared the council chambers after the members refused to leave.
After about 20 minutes, the council reconvened to finish the meeting. No arrests or citations were issued, Porter said.