Politics & Government

Move to limit Puyallup resident's comments raises questions

Kari Plog

Staff writer

Puyallup Mayor John Knutsen temporarily halted a resident from speaking at this week's City Council meeting, saying he wouldn't allow "negative comments" to be aired against a member of the city planning commission.

The move came four years after a majority of the council, including Knutsen, voted to allow residents to speak openly and critically at public meetings.

This week's exchange occurred during Tuesday's citizen comment period, when Puyallup 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 and said a public meeting is not a forum to "attack" or speak poorly about volunteer board members.

"I'm going to install a policy here," said Knutsen, who was appointed mayor last month. "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 whether she could share her thoughts without referring to Hastings by name, and the mayor allowed her to continue. Cronk requested that the council reopen the appointment process to seek other candidates, and she made other comments critical of the commissioner without using his name.

Knutsen's attempt to guide citizen comment stands in contrast to a vote taken by the Puyallup City Council in 2010. The council voted down a proposal requiring citizens to be "courteous in their language and deportment" when speaking at council meetings. It would have banned any "derogatory, impertinent, or slanderous remarks or insinuations" against council members, staff or citizens.

The proposal was rejected in a 4-3 vote, and Knutsen - a council member at the time - was one of the four in the majority who said the public should be free to speak its mind.

Knutsen told The News Tribune on Thursday that he was unaware that citizen attacks would have been regulated by the 2010 proposal; he said he never would have voted against 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 (citizen comment is) a forum for citizens to attack other citizens."

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

Puyallup 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."

The rejected 2010 proposal would have given the mayor authority to decide whether citizens' comments were "germane and relevant."

Residents complained the rules would infringe on their free-speech rights and prevent them from publicly criticizing city officials' decisions.

Although that proposal was never adopted, City Manager Bill McDonald told The News Tribune on Wednesday that the mayor and the council are still allowed to monitor unnecessary negative remarks.

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

State legal experts have said city councils can ban disruptive behavior in their chambers, and impose time and noise limits on citizen speech, but requiring courtesy is a more subjective standard that's difficult to enforce.

Other area cities 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.

Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto said in an email to the newspaper Wednesday night: "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."

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682