Pierce County may limit what it must hear

Abusive comments lead to effort to impose rules on speakers from public

Staff writerApril 27, 2014 

Over several months, a Tacoma-area man made increasingly abusive comments to the Pierce County Council.

Council leaders repeatedly warned the man and gaveled him down numerous times during meetings. Finally, in March, Council Chairman Dan Roach took the unusual step of banning the man from speaking during the council’s regular public comment forum.

Now, a County Council committee is expected to decide Monday whether to recommend imposing a new restriction on members of the public who speak at the forum.

The one-sentence addition reads: “No person shall make personal or slanderous remarks.” What constitutes those types of remarks is left undefined.

The proposal comes from Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma. She and her family members were targeted by the abusive citizen, and she says his behavior made it clear that the council’s rules need to be stronger and more precise.

Ladenburg said the addition will help whoever is leading council meetings. It also will help the public “understand exactly what the rules are,” she said.

The change won’t limit the public’s ability to make comments about county business as long as they’re presented appropriately, she said.

Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said he’s not sure about adding more restrictions.

“Open public testimony in open meetings is really critical,” he said.

Roach questioned whether it really matters what rules the council has for public comment.

“Somebody that’s intent on breaking those rules is going to break them,” he said.

Ladenburg said the added language might have helped rein in local resident Joe Marzano last year before his comments escalated.

Marzano railed against Ladenburg and her husband, former County Executive John Ladenburg. Marzano also lashed out at Tacoma Municipal Court Judge David Ladenburg, whose court he had appeared in. David and John Ladenburg are brothers.

Marzano’s remarks were made during the council’s citizens’ forum. At the end of each council meeting, citizens can speak for up to three minutes on issues related to county government that are not on the agenda.

The conflict peaked March 25 when Roach warned Marzano if he violated the rules again he would be barred from speaking during the forum in the future. As soon as Marzano mentioned David Ladenburg’s name, Roach gaveled him down.

“You broke the rule again,” Roach said. “Submit it in writing from now on. Thank you.”

Marzano was escorted by the Sheriff’s Department from at least two council meetings. He wasn’t charged with a crime for the language he used before council members.

He could not be reached to comment for this story.

Connie Ladenburg said Marzano’s comments about John Ladenburg were slanderous because her husband is no longer an elected official or a public figure.

“I don’t think slander is protected speech,” she said.

Despite the proposed restrictions, she said the county still wants to hear what the public has to say about county business.

“We’re there to hear people’s points of view so it helps us make better decisions in our legislation,” she said.

She’s confident whoever is chairing council meetings will “err on the side of the public.”

Connie Ladenburg is proposing the addition to Pierce County’s code. Councilman Stan Flemming, R-Gig Harbor, is a co-sponsor.

Pierce County’s code already says no person “shall disrupt the orderly conduct of any Council meeting.”

It also says any speaker who doesn’t follow the rules is subject “to forfeiture of his or her opportunity to speak to the Council and/or removal from the Council Chambers … at the discretion of the Chair.”

Council attorney Susan Long said she drafted the new proposal from rules in other jurisdictions, using language that has been upheld by courts.

In her 25 years as a council attorney, Long said there have been prior instances when speakers stepped over the line, were stopped during their remarks and were removed by the Sheriff’s Department. But she doesn’t recall another time when someone was prohibited from speaking in the future.

It’s the chairman’s duty to run an orderly meeting, Long added, which could include admonishing and sanctioning someone who violates the rules.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647
steve.maynard@thenewstribune.com
@TNTstevemaynard

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