So, a priest walks into a city council meeting — stop me if you’ve heard this one — and is nearly hauled away by the police for speaking calmly to his elected officials.
Father Nathan Monk wasn’t laughing at last night’s City Council meeting. During the Boyd Forum, an open comment period named in honor of the late civic activist LeRoy Boyd, Father Monk chided the council members — and Council President Sam Hall in particular — for their actions at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting. At that meeting, several citizens had spoken in opposition to the proposed anti-homeless ordinances, and in doing so made unflattering comparisons to historical figures (one person mentioned Heinrich Himmler’s “Final Solution“) and questioned the Christian charity of any council member who would support the ordinances. Council members DeWeese and Johnson took offense at the accusations, and Hall had asked Police Chief Chip Simmons to remove several speakers he deemed “out of order.”
At last night’s meeting, Monk told the council they had no right to dictate the content of their speech, and suggested that they instead examine any actions by the city that would prompt such comparisons.
“As Americans, we have the right to redress our government without fear of being arrested,” he said. “Whether or not they’re connecting dots from Hitler to George Wallace to Barney … you should be asking, ‘well what are we doing that’s allowing people to connect those dots?’ It was a sick and gross abuse of power.”
Council President Hall interrupted Monk at that point. “Your time is up, sit down,” he said.
“No, I have a minute and 12 seconds left,” Monk said, looking at the timer at the speaker’s lectern.
“I’m ruling you out of order,” Hall said.
When Monk refused to leave, noting that he had not violated any rules of conduct, Hall asked Police Chief Simmons and two other uniformed police officers in attendance to remove him. He refused to budge until his allotted time was up, after which he was escorted from council chambers by the officers.
During the standoff, council members Sherri Myers and John Jerralds stood up and left their seats in protest.
“I am leaving this chamber as you are in violation of the people’s First Amendment right,” Myers said. “I will be outside if you want to want to address your grievances to your government.”
Returning to her seat later in the meeting, she strongly criticized the “chilling effect” such censorship can have on the public right to speech.
Civility was a recurring theme at last night’s meeting. City Administrator Bill Reynolds spoke about lingering charter questions, like whether the mayor should attend council meetings or had authority to award employee bonuses, and said that there was a certain level of political rhetoric he considered inappropriate.
“It’s really unfortunate that the political disagreements and discussions that we will have get forced into venues that they simply don’t have a place,” Reynolds said. He added that when the mayor is making “a good faith effort” to help employees, “to suggest that somehow that action is criminal, that really is a little bit beyond the pale.”
The context behind this statement was a complaint lodged by former council member Diane Mack alleging that Mayor Hayward had acted illegally in awarding the bonuses. She requested an opinion from the State Attorney’s Office of whether the bonuses violated Sec. 9-3-24 of city code, which states that “No bonus shall be paid to any employee unless specifically authorized by the council.” Reynolds said they received the opinion yesterday, and that the State Attorney’s Office believed the mayor was within his authority:
The Charter for the City of Pensacola provides that the Mayor has the power to exercise the executive powers of the City and to supervise all departments including, but not limited to, the power to appoint, discipline, and remove all officers and employees. … [T]he City Charter provides that if a conflict exists between the provisions of the Charter and the Code of Ordinances, the Charter provisions control.
The mayor’s office issued a press statement about the opinion at around 5:00 yesterday afternoon, which Reynolds said he hoped would “bring an end to the debate,” but several council members said they had not heard about it before the meeting.
Councilman Johnson, who arrived late to the council meeting, said it didn’t seem like “the best use of our time to keep beating this horse.”
“We now have a State Attorney’s Office opinion that has been rendered supporting that decision,” Johnson said. “Let’s move on from that, and let’s start trying to find ways to grow this city.”