Bill seeks to help local governments define decorum for public meetings

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The city of Winchester in eastern Indiana has fewer than 5,000 residents but one glaring problem in the eyes of local elected officials: people purposefully disrupting government meetings and deliberately disregarding decorum.

Mayor Bob McCoy detailed a December 5, 2022, meeting in which attendees were “so out of hand” that he adjourned the meeting early and chaos ensued.

“The crowd just took over the council chambers, got up on the bench and (were) slamming the gavel. It’s just, it’s just been so crazy,” McCoy said. “Our residents do not want to come to our meetings. We’ve got two or three people that have pretty much monopolized our meetings since May of 2022.”

McCoy said he filed a protective order on behalf of himself, his family and various city officials after an individual started filming clients coming and leaving the city attorney’s office. And, for the first time, he started carrying a firearm.

Some residents have told him they don’t want to sign in and testify before the council for fear of retaliation. Ongoing actions include repeated interruptions, ignoring three-minute time limits or raising hands to say someone on the council is “out of order,” according to McCoy.

The content ends up on YouTube, a platform which Rep. J.D. Prescott said encouraged the group to be more disruptive to get more views and subsequently monetize the videos. In response to events in Winchester, which is in his district, he introduced House Bill 1338 to let municipalities define decorum and protect intervening law enforcement.

The bill passed out of the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee unanimously and moves to the full House.

“The thing that I keep trying to balance is when person A’s First Amendment rights start to violate person B’s First Amendment rights,” Prescott said. “And when you have people that are uncomfortable coming to city council meetings, coming to county council meetings because of a small group of individuals (who are) being disruptive. I think it’s a clear violation of the average, everyday citizen’s First Amendment rights.”

Prescott, R-Union City, said the language doesn’t impact school board meetings, which the General Assembly regulated recently, and utilizes a “three strikes” approach. After two verbal warnings, the local presiding officer can ask the disruptive attendee to leave and, if they refuse, law enforcement can intervene.

Decorum rules determined by local units of government must be posted in a public place and law enforcement can immediately remove someone if necessary to maintain public order or if a crime is committed. The bill also clarifies that the state’s qualified immunity legal language protects public employees and law enforcement from being held personally liable for enforcement.

Additionally, the bill expands the definition of trespass to include restricted property with appropriate signage. Previously, trespass only counted if an owner or operator asked an alleged trespasser to leave and signs didn’t count as notice.

Luke Britt, Indiana’s Public Access Counselor charged with rulings related to the state’s public access laws, spoke in support of the bill, saying the issues aren’t unique to Winchester.

“The bill itself mirrors a lot of guidance that I’ve issued from my office in the form of advisory opinions. But this codifies those and gives them more weight,” he said. “And I think that gives more confidence to local officials to keep that decorum, to keep civility (and) to keep those business meetings professional.”

Britt opined that such rules wouldn’t infringe on the freedom of residents to protest, beyond the already acceptable and constitutional limits on time, place and manner.

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13 thoughts on “Bill seeks to help local governments define decorum for public meetings

  1. Hold on a second. Explain to me why school board meetings need different rules than any other public meeting of government. What’s allowed for school boards should apply to everyone else …

    1. I think the simple answer is that state law defines different types of government entities and corporations, and so each requires its own rule for “open meetings” and meeting rules of procedure. For example, another class of government meetings would be those relating to land use (plan commissions, boards of zoning appeals, etc.), and those have their own rules of procedure.

      Further complicating matters is that Indiana has some laws governing 91 counties that don’t necessarily apply in a county with a consolidated city-county government, and vice versa. So harmonizing all these meeting laws may be a little tougher project than this bill author anticipates.

    2. The bill author, who has at least once stomped out of a public meeting rather than answer questions he doesn’t like, is frequently over his head.

  2. If the Council was out of order, good for people to notice.

    The Council should allow constituents to participate remotely. This will solve a lot of the intimidation issue.

    If the Chair is suppressing testimony in an attempt to sway the attendees, then shame on him or her.

    School Boards have been hiding behind their administrative nonsense for years. Requiring questions in advance to approve them? Really? All this pushback against their shenanigans is long overdue.

    1. If the council or the school board is out of order, people can vote them out.

      Mandatory remote participation (which is prohibited for schools, btw) requires another large technology expense which I suspect most counties would rather not take on. It takes more than setting up a laptop with Zoom.

      There’s no solid case for exempting school boards from the legislation other than Prescott wants to encourage bad behavior at school board meetings, which just lowers my opinion of Prescott even further.

    2. It is easier and more effective to remind them in the meeting that they are out of order.

      Are you advocating that Boards intentionally not follow the law?

      I did not say Mandatory participation for remote.

      Providing the ability to do so is not the same as requiring it and they already have the technology in place to do it from the pandemic.

      And school boards have been hiding behind administrative procedural practices for years. No sympathy for them.

  3. A disruptive group gets what is legally defined as the “heckler’s veto”. This was used in the south as an excuse to cancel civil rights protests, when somebody like the KKK would threaten to counter-protest. Rather than enforce rules for peaceful and civil protest, authorities would just deny permits. It is a clear form on censorship.

    If the same thing is happening at school board meetings, then those creating a hostile environment are guilty of censorship.

  4. These bills need to go both ways. This past year, we had a public library board president and members who were quick to have police escort people out of the room for disagreeing with them in a manner they didn’t like during public comments but at the same time would ignore outburst and disruptions by people who they did agree with. Using the police as a threat is not a good way to run an in the public meeting either.

    But seriously — rather than having those at a higher level make a bunch of laws, the local leaders need to figure out how to lead.

  5. Long past time for everyone to behave at public meetings. Doesn’t matter your viewpoint. I think they should ban signs and posters and banners and flyers in the meeting room. If you are yelling from your seat, if you’re speaking when you’ve not been recognized to do so, then out you go. One warning, then you’re gone. Maybe there are some old-school nuns around who could be hired to maintain the peace and order…

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