St. George • Faced with what she believes is growing divisiveness from residents who are more interested in stoking culture wars than in commenting on city issues, St. George Mayor Michele Randall has decided to do away with the public comment portion of City Council meetings.
“Public comment has turned into the same people saying the same things, mostly regarding social issues,” Randall said Thursday. She announced the decision at the May 4 City Council meeting. “It was starting to get very divisive and in no way reflected the Dixie Spirit.”
Randall and others say comments at recent meetings have gone south, with unruly residents calling some members of the all-Republican City Council “communists” and other names, sounding off about cancel culture, liberal woke politics in city government and the evils of drag shows being staged at city parks and other public places — often to the detriment of more substantive municipal matters.
Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin said she supports allowing the public to comment on municipal issues.
“But if people are coming to talk about things that are just culture war igniters and have nothing to do with city business, it doesn’t help us productively run the city,” Larkin said. “Members of the public have the right to speak their mind, even if what they have to say is discriminatory, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to disrupt a public meeting.”
Unruly conduct, Randall and others argue, has interfered at times with the council’s ability to do its job and conduct municipal business. Some recent examples cited by supporters of the new policy include the April meeting at which a large crowd wearing “Protect Utah’s Kids” packed the municipal chambers to oppose drag shows, mock gender dysphoria and to harangue the mayor and some council members for allegedly having a secret agenda to make “St. George the drag queen hub of the West.”
Another contentious meeting occurred in January when Steve Brazell, a media and brand strategist for Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, attempted to counter a queer community narrative about drag shows being about love and inclusion by reading hate mail he said Tanner had received. But after reading aloud the “F” bombs and “C-word” in the purported social media posts in the presence of Boy Scouts and children, the mayor cut his remarks short.
St. George’s May 4 meeting was a continuation of the trend. Despite posted notices informing people that posters and signs were not permitted in the council chambers, a group of residents — many of them holding placards reading “Mayor Randall, it’s un-American to not let us speak” — arrived to scold the mayor and oppose the policy change.
In outlining her decision to do away with the public comment period at the meeting, Randall said it was a move to “maintain efficiency in conducting the city’s business.” She said residents could still make their voices heard by submitting their comments in writing to the city at email@example.com or mail them to the city recorder. The mayor added the letters would not be read aloud at meetings or included in council members’ work packets.
On the bright side, the mayor said residents would no longer be subject to the three-minute time limit that governed oral comments and could take as long as required to make their point in writing. Moreover, she added, the city will post the letters on its and the Utah Public Notice websites. Public comment will still be accepted during public hearings on specific agenda items.
Randall then instructed the crowd to put down their signs.
“We’ve asked for no signs to be in here, so please take them down,” she said. “If you don’t want to take them down, we’ll have the police come around and gather them up.”
Tanner objected to the change and implored Randall to bring back the public comment period at some future point.
“I just want it a matter of record that I oppose the decision to take away the oral public comment …,” she said to loud applause and yells of approval. “I can certainly understand the reasons behind it, and I certainly don’t fault anyone for some of those reasons. But I think we have to default to what holds us most accountable. And I do agree that you can always email us and call us, but there is a difference in being able to actually come to a public meeting and speak in person and make it a matter of public record.”
Randall warned residents that if there were any more “comments, clapping or yelling” she would adjourn the meeting until police cleared them out of the chambers. That elicited more shouting as one man recited the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits Congress from, among other things, “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That prompted the mayor to recess the meeting until Police Chief Kyle Whitehead could restore order. As she walked out of the chambers, one man yelled “What are you afraid of?”
“Tyranny,” another resident in the audience yelled.
“You are something,” a man told Randall as she was exiting. “Yep, I am,” the mayor replied.
That led to the crowd yelling out “recall,” a threat to have her removed from office.
Utah does not allow recall elections at the state and local levels.
“Thank you Michelle Tanner for following your oath,” Washington City resident David Johnson posted on Tanner’s Facebook page. “The other members of the council should be fired, or ‘recalled’ for breaking their oath to protect the Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic…
“There is no room for interpretation when it comes to the Constitution,” Johnson wrote. “The 1st Amendment is very clear and leaves no doubt what our rights are. If the rest of the council doesn’t agree they can step down and We The People will replace them. I know people think I’m intimidating, scary and a bully, but when it comes to my rights and freedoms I’ll wear those labels proudly!”
St. George resident Ron Woodbury echoed Johnson’s sentiments.
“Those in our city leadership (and their unelected minions) who wish to stifle the voice of the citizens of our community should resign immediately,” he wrote. “Anyone have connections at Fox? This deserves to be exposed at a national level. What a disgrace.”
Jace Richards, a resident who watches council meetings on the Community Education Channel, counters the incivility by some members of the public is disgraceful.
“Some residents at the meetings display an almost lynch-mob mentality that I find to be incredibly disturbing and disheartening,” he said. “I have a good friend who quit his position on a city council in Oregon due to bullying and threats from the public. I thought we were better than that in St. George, but apparently, we are not.”
For her part, Councilwoman Natalie Larsen is not on board with doing away with public comment and hopes the mayor will bring it back soon. Nevertheless, Larsen added she was “super disappointed” that the people who were protesting the policy change did not care enough to stick around after the meeting resumed to comment on subsequent public hearings.
“One of them was [on] the budget and one was transportation, and nobody stayed to talk to those points,” she said, adding it would be great to hear from residents on those issues.
Vince Brown, director of Utah Tech University’s Institute of Politics and a keen observer of the local political scene, would like to see the two sides in the dispute find common ground.
“I hope they find a solution that allows for as much speech as possible but encourages civility, compromise and getting work done,” he said.
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