Several months of fiery, obnoxious behavior at council meetings have culminated in Mayor Charlie Luken's decision to establish new rules governing public participation. The new rules block citizens from voicing unsolicited opinions at the beginning of meetings.
Citizens may now address council only if called upon by a council member to speak about agenda items before a vote -- or they must wait until the conclusion of the meeting to speak. Council also has the option to ban unruly citizens from meetings for up to several months.
The majority of council seems convinced of the necessity of the measures, designed to eliminate the sometimes profanity-laden, racist and vulgar tirades that have characterized many recent meetings.
"It's about time," says Councilman Phil Heimlich. "Our meetings have begun to look more like the Jerry Springer show than the Jerry Springer show."
"Because of disruptive behavior in the council, something had to be done," says Councilwoman Minette Cooper.
The new rules are apparently the basis of Luken's attempt to regain the control he's lost over the past several months.
To no one's surprise, the new rules have been controversial.
Many would-be speakers say the rules seek to silence the booming voice of dissent in the city.
Some council members, however, insist the opportunity to speak before council is a privilege -- not a right.
"There's no right to be able to speak twice at a meeting," Councilman John Cranley says.
Members of the public aren't allowed to address meetings of the Ohio General Assembly or Congress, Cranley adds.
The most salient problem with the rule change is that it forces citizens to confront a councilmember before a meeting and convince him or her to invite a person's input during the meeting. Citizens attending a meeting for the first time, eager to speak about an issue, might be apprehensive about privately approaching an unfamiliar councilmember.
Cooper and Heimlich are quick to acknowledge concern that speakers might not be able to address important issues before council takes a vote. Others, however, dismiss the risk.
"We're all trying to get elected," Cranley says. "It's not hard to approach us. If anything, this will encourage more interaction with elected officials."
So far the rules don't seem to be hindering public input, perhaps due more to sporadic enforcement than anything else. The June 13 meeting -- when the new rules went into effect for the first time -- resulted in the forceful removal of four citizens.
At the beginning of the June 20 meeting, Luken reiterated the rules for public participation, while three uniformed police officers watched from the rear of the chambers, waiting to remove any violators. After council permitted three speakers to address a proposed cultural audit of the police division by Grassroots Leadership Academy, the new system appeared to be running smoothly.
But soon afterward, Kobaka Aba -- a regular visitor at council meetings and one of council's most outspoken critics -- ignored the rules, attacking council members and demanding a U.S. Justice Department investigation of the Hamilton County Prosecutor. Aba met virtually no resistance from Luken, and his emotional words touched off a wave of disorder within the chambers. Luken then ordered unruly citizens escorted out of the meeting.
The long-term effectiveness of the rules remains to be seen, but Cooper says they're potentially counterproductive.
"People are dissatisfied, frustrated and don't feel like they're being heard," she says. "And I think that when people feel that way, the more you constrict their ability to speak out, the louder and more inappropriate they get."