Editorial: Public meetings are no place for a riot

The Detroit News

Robert's Rules of Order took a beating in Metro Detroit this week. Public meetings in both the city and suburbs were disrupted by boisterous citizens, many of whom complained they weren't allowed to exercise their constitutional rights.

Police were called. Meetings were adjourned early. And citizens were arrested.

Police officers remove police commissioner Willie Burton from a board meeting where facial recognition software was discussed

At a Detroit Charter Revision Commission meeting last Tuesday, Chair Carol Weaver and Vice Chair Nicole Small played tug-of-war over a microphone. Police were called amid charges and countercharges of assault, though no complaint was filed.

Later in the meeting a protester, convinced the commission is favoring business interests over the neighborhoods, was arrested and hauled away. 

The scene was repeated Thursday night at a meeting of the Detroit Police Commission, which is considering the police department's use of facial recognition technology.

Protesters showed up in masks and attempted to take over the session. Commissioner Willie Burton, who sides with the activists on the issue, was handcuffed by police, arrested and removed.

Lest the impression is given that this is just a Detroit problem, two Birmingham citizens complained they were denied their right to address the city commission last week about a $54.7 million bond issue for a parking garage.

Officials told the pair that a contract between the city and and the Birmingham-Bloomfield Cable board, which streams the meetings, "prohibits political speech." Huh? What's the point of having a meeting of a government body if politics are off-limits? The Birmingham session was adjourned early when some in the crowd got loud.

All of this made for great theater, but it was terrible for policy making.

Without parsing who's right and who's wrong, this seems to be a good point at which to remind both public officials and the citizens they serve of the importance of civility.

Such issues such as the facial recognition controversy stir passions, and citizens inevitably bring intense emotions to meetings. They have a right to be heard. At the same time, they have a responsibility to follow the rules of the meeting, to speak within their allotted time and to do so in a non-threatening manner. Grabbing microphones and physically intimidating officials is not cool.

For their part, public officials must make sure they provide the necessary opportunity for citizen input. It's appropriate to set reasonable time limits, and to restrict the number of speakers in the interest of time constraints.

But meetings shouldn't be adjourned prematurely or speakers denied the floor simply to shut down dissent. The public can sometimes be unpleasant, but dealing with them is part of being a public servant.

We are living in an era in which shouting and anger are the means by which public business is too often conducted.

That's neither productive nor healthy, and it certainly is not the road to a harmonious community. 

Here's a clue: If the only way a meeting can move from start to finish without violence is with a cadre of police officers in the room, something is very wrong.

So how about this week everyone who participates in a public gathering commit to listening before screaming? Let's all just chill and see if productive governing breaks out. Surely it's worth a try.