Iowa City Council creates new rules governing meetings and addressing disruptions

Iowa City City Hall — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Iowa City Council unanimously adopted a new set of procedural rules for its meetings, including sanctions for rule breakers, during its March 22 meeting. While most of the rules cover routine conduct and meeting structure, six of the 36 rules govern public participation during meetings.

The rules stipulate that the public can address the city council only on specific items of the agenda during formal meetings. Individuals must step up to the podium, say their name, the city where they live and name any organization they are speaking on behalf of. They must also write this information in the speaker log.

The council will limit the time available to each speaker to no more than three minutes, though the presiding officer — typically the mayor or mayor pro tem — can allow for more or less time for some speaker, such as those who are being assisted by a translator.

Speakers will be limited to germane comments that “relate directly” to an agenda item. The presiding officer will determine if comments are germane and arguing with the presiding officer “will be considered per se disruptive.” Speakers who make non-germane comments, or disrupt the meeting, will not be able to address the council for the remainder of the meeting.

“While Council absolutely respects the public’s First Amendment rights when addressing Council, speakers are most persuasive when they make substantive arguments supported by facts,” the rule states.

Others rules will ban “extensive demonstrations, cheering or booing” during or after a speaker’s comments so that individuals don’t feel “bullied or intimidated.” Individuals must address the entire council and not specific council members and may speak on each agenda item only once.

During public comment, councilmembers will not respond to questions or engage in discussion or debate, though they may ask city staff “to follow up with the speaker.” Some people have pushed for the council to respond to speakers during public comment, but the council has expressed concerns that engaging such discussions could end up violating Iowa’s Open Meetings law, which require advance public notice of at least 24 hours of the issues that will be discussed at a meeting.

“I think it’s very important for this council to really consider the ways that we can still answer the public, but being at the podium, during the time, having exchanges, I don’t think is the right, appropriate space in our business meetings,” Mayor Bruce Teague said.

Teague proposed adding a section to the speaker log where individuals can leave their contact information and indicate that they want staff to contact them.

If members of the public violate council’s rules, they may face sanctions that include:

  • A verbal warning.
  • Not being recognized to speak at the remainder of the same meeting.
  • Being directed to leave the meeting.
  • Being suspended from attending one or more subsequent city council meetings.

The presiding officer will decide if a member of the public violated the rules and will decide what sanction, if any, to impose. The sanctions will be progressively applied, but some sanctions may be skipped if the presiding officer decides that the violation is “sufficiently egregious.” The presiding officer can impose more sanctions for noncompliance to previous sanctions.

The city council had been workshopping the meeting protocols for months in response to its Dec. 14 meeting. That meeting lasted over four hours when several members of the public spoke in support of hybrid meetings during every public comment section for every agenda item.

Noah Peterson takes the podium, accompanied by Dan Kauble, at the Dec. 14, 2021 meeting of the Iowa City Council, urging the council to address shelter for houseless individuals and hybrid meeting options during the public comment sections on unrelated municipal issues.

The city council began compiling the procedural rule proposals during its next work session on Jan. 4. The council did consider charging members of the public with a municipal infraction for multiple violations. Mayor Teague argued such sanctions were needed to stop disruptions that might prevent the council from doing its work.

“If disorderly conduct continues, what will we do consistently?” Teague asked during the work session.

While the city councils in Iowa do not have to include public comment periods in the meetings and can impose “reasonable rules” to maintain order, some council members said they were worried that punitive sanctions and restrictions would place too many burdens on freedom of speech.

“I would not be in favor of forcibly removing someone, using police, from our chambers unless there was some immediate threat of violence,” Councilmember Laura Bergus said.

Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter agreed.

“I would agree completely with Counselor Bergus, I’m very, very wary of arrests. Because I think that swings the pendulum too far,” she said.

The procedural rules went through several drafts during two months of work sessions. During the formal meeting on March 1, the first consideration of the resolution would have imposed a municipal infraction for violating council rules, which is a civil penalty. City staff proposed fines of $100 for first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 a third and subsequent offense.

Several council members argued against those punitive measures. Bergus said she originally advocated for a civil infraction as an alternative to criminal charges but is no longer agrees with the provision.

“I do think that we are allowed to govern the germaneness of comments at our meetings,” the councilmember said. “But as I’ve sat with this, I’m not comfortable having a punitive element to participating in our meetings.”

“I don’t think we should think about being punitive,” said Councilmember Janice Weiner. “I’m not going to support this.”

Mayor Teague agreed that criminal penalties were unnecessary but said the council should have the civil penalties in place in case members of the public attending meetings became too disruptive, though he said he considered it very unlikely the penalties would ever be imposed.

“It could happen where we could not operate our meetings, and if someone keeps coming back and causing a disturbance, what do we have in our toolbox?” he said. “I don’t think it will ever get to this.”

Teague added that they could remove the civil fines, and if they were needed later on, council could circle back to this issue. Councilmember Pauline Taylor she was “confused” during the discussion, feeling that council had been placed in a “villain” role.

“We had been feeling pressure, and had felt like we were being disrespected,” she said. “Seeing other councils across the state and country who have actually brought in harsher methods for controlling. I thought that’s what we wanted to kinda go that route.”

Councilmember John Thomas said that past difficulties in meetings coincided with the stress of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. He suggested that council have a “conversation with the community” and to create “self-regulating” meetings.

Following discussion, city council unanimously rejected the municipal infraction for violating city council rules. The revised version of the rules, without the municipal infractions, was on the council’s agenda during its March 22 meeting, and was unanimously approved.

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