The second City Council meeting of the new year on January 16 was markedly different from council meetings of the past year: no interruptions, no yelling and no profanities, behavior that suspended 2018’s first meeting two weeks ago.
Newly elected Vice-Mayor Heather Hill ran the meeting in the absence of Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who was ill after she appeared on “The View” in New York the day before.
Several speakers promised continued incivility, but refrained from the disruptions of the recent past.
When former mayor Kay Slaughter said, “All citizens who speak should be respected” and “not subject to heckling, jeering and profanity,” she was not booed as were speakers asking for the same at the last meeting—although some hissing has been reported.
“I don’t think anyone should be subjected to crowd bullying when they are presenting their ideas,” she said, noting that some of those who were jeered “had served the city well.”
One of those would be former public defender Jim Hingeley, about whom Slaughter says, “Nobody’s done more in trying to help with criminal justice than Jim.”
He was greeted with catcalls and interruptions when he made a plea for civility January 2, and described the tactics as the “hecklers veto” and “intimidation by an angry mob,” which brought further jeers.
Hingeley watched the most recent meeting from California, and says, “I don’t know that one meeting is a trend.”
Councilors discussed changes to the public comment section of the meeting, which has been a sore point since former mayor Mike Signer implemented changes two years ago that included online sign-up—and which led to a court ruling of unconstitutionality for banning group defamation.
Hingeley attributed the less-heated meeting to “possibly the fact council has made it clear they’re going to make changes to their public comment format that had people holding back from their normal disruptions.”
In September, after the deadly white nationalist and neo-Nazi invasion of Charlottesville when council chambers were out of control, then vice-mayor Wes Bellamy declared that “white supremacy masks itself through politeness.”
“Does that mean the Ku Klux Klan is civil?” asks Hingeley. “That’s nonsense.”
He offers a definition of civility from Wikipedia, which also says the word comes from the Latin for “citizen”: “The notion of positively constructive civility suggests robust, even passionate engagement is found in respect of differing views.”
The irony, he says, is that the biggest disruptors want to have white supremacy addressed, but “yelling about it the loudest and taking time away from policy leaders is not the way to make progress.”
Hingeley also says he doesn’t like the inequality in the way City Council enforces its rules based on content, escorting unpopular speaker Jason Kessler out of the chamber, while allowing activist Mary Carey to stay. “That’s a violation of the First Amendment,” he says.
UVA prof and activist Jalane Schmidt has also declared that politeness masks racism. She says she’s talking about “systemic” incivility, such as the lack of affordable housing and economic inequality.
“The lack of transparency created uncivil conditions,” she says. Some of those getting booed are also contributors to those on council. “They get more than their three minutes,” she says.
After the new year’s first meeting, Schmidt suggested that Walker could have a calming effect on the “rambunctious” council meetings.
She says she doesn’t know why the climate changed at the January 16 meeting, but she offers a few theories. “New year, new council. It also had a short agenda and a lot of listening by councilors.”
For Signer, who has been in the hot seat pretty much his entire term as mayor and is the target of frequent calls for his resignation, the cooler temperature was no doubt a pleasant change of pace.
He says in an email, “I enjoyed the meeting and was glad to join in a constructive conversation with community members and my colleagues about community engagement and exciting new ideas like participatory budgeting.”