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Limit Public Input? Luken Says Yes, Luken Says Maybe, Luken Says No

By Doug Trapp · February 15th, 2001 · Burning Questions

What's the best way to deal with people who grandstand in front of city council? Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, who proposed new restrictions on public participation in council meetings, now has decided to turn the other cheek.

For several months, a small group of vocal critics have been repeatedly speaking in front of council about race relations, the police and other issues. Sometimes they push the limits of what council rules allow, calling police officers "murderers," the country "the Jew-nited Snakes of America" and Luken a "punk faggot."

As the rhetoric seemed to reach a peak in November, Luken -- with support from Phil Heimlich, Jim Tarbell and others on council -- introduced a motion to limit each citizen to a single two-minute speech per council meeting. Council could revoke the limit for certain speakers as it sees fit.

Under existing rules, citizens have two ways to address council: They can speak about anything for two minutes at the meeting's end, and they can speak for two minutes about each item on council's agenda. With the dozens of items on each agenda, in theory each speaker could take the podium for a combined hour or two each meeting.

Rules govern what speakers can say. The rules say the mayor "shall preserve order and decorum, prevent attacks on personalities or impugning of members' motives and confine members in debate to the question under discussion."

Since November, Kobaka Oba, Minister Abdul Muhammad Ali and their cohorts have been relatively civil. That might be in part because Luken has kept a tighter reign on the meetings. A couple of times Luken cut off Oba for crossing council's rules by calling police officers "murderers." At the same time, the speakers have taken advantage of the rules, sometimes speaking up to five times per meeting.

This has sometimes visibly frustrated Luken, who, after one particularly raucous meeting, left council chambers muttering about how sick he was of the name calling.

But is Luken's motion too broad? John Schlagetter, an architect with ForeGenitor Consulting who's running for council this year, believes so.

"This is obviously targeted at Kobaka Oba to keep him from speaking more than once," says Schlagetter, who spoke against the motion at council a week after it was introduced.

Luken's motion was headed for a review by council's rules committee, headed by Councilwoman Alicia Reece. No date had been set for the committee, which hasn't met since the 1999 elections.

After the Feb. 7 council meeting, CityBeat asked Luken if he still backs the proposal. At first, while walking out of council chambers, he said yes. But a few minutes later, sitting behind his desk in his first-floor office, he began to waiver, saying other council members asked him to make the motion.

"This is not a big deal to me. I don't care," Luken said. "I just think the council should have some way to limit that kind of abuse."

After thinking for a minute, Luken said the more attention the motion gets, the more speakers are attracted to council. Maybe paying less attention to the speakers is the way to deal with them, he said.

"It may just fade away," Luken said.

Then, after a few moments of staring at the back of his office, Luken made a decision.

"You know what? I'm not going to pursue it," Luken said. "It seemed like a good idea, but it's not."

The last thing he wants to do, he said, is limit the council debates.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.



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