Puyallup mayor attempts to curb citizen's comments, stays within the rules

Staff writerFebruary 26, 2014 

Puyallup Mayor John Knutsen temporarily halted a resident from speaking during Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting and although exercising that power isn’t common, it isn’t unusual.

Still, the action appears to contradict a stance Knutsen took on a similar issue four years ago.

The exchange occurred during Tuesday’s citizen comment period, when resident Joan Cronk said she was “extremely disappointed that the committee who made the decision about the appointment to the Planning Commission has supported (chairman) Steve Hastings.”

Before Cronk could continue, Knutsen interrupted saying that a public meeting is not a forum to “attack” or speak poorly about volunteer board members.

“I’m going to install a policy here,” he said. “You may say what you want about the elected officials. But the volunteer citizens, I don’t want any negative comments about them.  It’s not appropriate.”

Cronk then asked if she could share her thoughts without referring to the planning commission chairman by name, and the mayor allowed her to continue. Cronk requested that the council reopen the appointment process to seek other candidates, and made other comments critical of the unnamed commissioner.

Mayor Knutsen’s attempt to guide citizen comment contradicts a position he took on a similar issue in 2010, when the Puyallup City Council voted on a proposal to require citizens to be “courteous in their language and deportment” when speaking at council meetings. The proposal was rejected in a 4-3 vote, and Knutsen was one of the four opponents of the effort.

The new language would have given the mayor authority to decide if citizens’ comments were “germane and relevant,” and would have banned any "derogatory, impertinent, or slanderous remarks or insinuations" against council members, staff or citizens. 

Many of the council members who rejected the proposal agreed that selectively censoring comments could infringe on the rights of the public.

Knutsen told The News Tribune on Thursday that he was unaware that citizen attacks would have been regulated by the 2010 proposal, saying he would have never voted for it had he known.

"I’m an opponent of censoring the public when it comes to discussion about staff or council members," he said. "I don’t think (a council meeting is) a forum for citizens to attack other citizens.”

Knutsen added that he knew where Cronk was going with her remarks, and the other council members had the ability to override his actions if they disagreed.

City Manager Bill McDonald told The News Tribune on Wednesday that the mayor and the council are allowed to monitor unnecessary negative remarks.

“You can control that type of behavior at a council meeting,” he said.

The council rules state that members of the audience "may comment on matters over which the City Council has jurisdiction or are germane to City business."

"Although there has been discussion from time to time about rules that govern citizen comments, the Council has not adopted rules that govern what could be characterized as personal attacks," City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto said in an email Wednesday night.

Other cities,  including Edgewood,  Federal Way,  Bremerton and DuPont,  have policies barring citizens from making slanderous or personally abusive remarks. Tacoma adopted a policy in 2005 that contains language nearly identical to Puyallup's failed proposal.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682
Follow Kari on Twitter: @KariPlog

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