On Wednesday, Portland City Council will vote to challenge a federal court ruling striking down its exclusion policies. While I agree with the ruling, it’s worth noting how intense their meetings can get.
Here’s a video of activist Joe Walsh and a few of the other meeting regulars pushing back against a council decision, for a little background. Walsh has been tossed out of several City Council meetings for disrupting proceedings, but a federal court recently decided that The City violated his First Amendment rights when 30- and 60-day exclusions were added to punish him.
What didn’t come out in the Oregonian story were the details of why Walsh was excluded, and the fact that he isn’t the only activist that has been hit with exclusions. Walsh said he knows of three other activists excluded from City Hall— including one who was given a permanent ban after trying to film the removal of a man having a mental crisis during his City Council testimony. Another activist wasn’t allowed into City Hall after a confrontation with City Hall security. Both incidents were filmed, and I’ve embedded the video later in this post.
Other activists have simply stopped coming to City Council because of how City Hall security treats testifiers, Walsh said. The federal judge was clear in his ruling: the City Council can’t prevent citizens from petitioning their government, and Walsh said he thinks The City needs to accept the ruling and stop trying to punish activists with exclusions. The City has the tools to throw out disruptive people, and that should be enough, he thinks.
Walsh received his last exclusion on July 8th, and he told the story on KBOO’s Voices from the Edge, hosted by Jo Ann Hardesty. The full interview is here (it begins at 5:45). Without legal support, the 73-year-old retired shipyard supervisor beat City Hall in court, and it’s a great story.
On the program, a KBOO listener called in to ask Walsh to tell the story (beginning at 30:05 in the interview) of how Mayor Hales’ “sneaky” (as the caller described it) procedural maneuver on July 8th set Walsh off. This led to his last removal and exclusion from City Hall— and sparked his lawsuit. It’s also a great story, one that begins with some bureaucratic minutiae.
Routine council agenda items are bundled in the consent agenda, items that are voted on all at once. But if someone wants to talk about one of the items, the City Charter allows them to do so. Walsh thought that a $100,000 transfer from the Bureau of Transportation to the Portland Police Bureau for police overtime needed discussion, and Mayor Charlie Hales had to pull it from the consent agenda and open it up to discussion.
It’s also important to know that Walsh has a medical issue requiring him to visit the bathroom regularly. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he requested in writing that the mayor and city council give him a reasonable accommodations for his disability (bathroom breaks). Walsh charges that Hales used the power of the gavel and Walsh’s medically-induced absence to get the overtime item through without discussion.
From the interview:
“What Charlie Hales does is he moves the item way after regular business which means that it takes two to three hours to get to it. So the people that wanna talk about it can’t spend that kinda time. So they leave. But unfortunately for Charlie, I’m retired so I can stay. But I have to go to the restroom… so I was out at the restroom, and he pulled it out of order and they voted on it. I mean my oxygen and all that stuff was still there. So they knew I was still there.
I walked back in and was told by a friend, “Joe, they voted on that thing, it’s gone.” So I yelled to Charlie I wanted to speak on that item, and he said no we already voted on it. I said you can’t do that. I pulled it, I wanna to talk about it. So we got into this big battle back and forth and finally they threw me out. And that’s when I got the 60-day excursion [sic]. And that’s when I said enough’s enough.”
Beyond KBOO’s coverage, only the Oregonian has been writing about this story. In a piece by Maxine Bernstein from when Walsh first filed his suit, the reasons were given about why Walsh had been ejected and excluded from City Council.
In the article, the story about how Hales moved up the item pulled from the consent agenda was simplified down to: “Walsh sought to testify about an agenda item that the council had already moved past.” I don’t know how Hales’ move was so stripped of context, but it’s another example of how every time I scratch the surface of a story in this town, weird details emerge.
I found that day’s agenda on the City’s website, and the consent agenda wasn’t voted on in the order it was listed. That supports Walsh’s point that the item he wanted to discuss was pushed later in the meeting. I also listened to a few hours of audio from that day’s City Council meeting, but wasn’t able to prove or disprove Walsh’s story from the on mic audio only. (In the ruling, however, the federal judge confirms Walsh’s story that he missed the vote, the possibility of malicious intent by Hales wasn’t addressed.)
The Muscle at City Hall
The video below was filmed on Nov. 25th. It shows a homeless rights activist being forcibly removed from the City Council meeting. The camera person , Kif Davis, and the activist were both arrested. It’s an ugly scene that I think could have been handled better by City security. PPB is being monitored by the US Department of Justice for its treatment of the mentally ill, and the first report on the agreement said PPB was only in “partial compliance” with reforms. The report says that PPB officers are trained in mental health intervention, but they are not being sent to all mental health calls. Is City Hall’s private security trained in mental health? Couldn’t they have just allowed the situation to de-escalate by waiting for the ambulance like the disturbed activist wanted?
Kif Davis, the camera person, was given a permanent ban from City Hall for this incident. It was his third exclusion, he said, but since the federal court’s ruling he has been allowed back into City Hall. He is still facing a criminal trespassing charge, he said. The activist in the video having the breakdown is still in jail, Davis said, and was also excluded from City Hall.
I don’t know the history of the camera person, but the following video seems like an egregious example of City Hall security overreach. The camera person was there for a public meeting, and when they didn’t immediately answer the security guard’s question they were under suspicion and pretty quickly thrown out.
If you’ve made it this far, here’s the last video you should watch. Davis confronts the security guards that threw him out of City Council chambers. Whatever your opinion of this issue, you gotta admit it’s fun to see these bruisers silenced by a guy with a camera. And if this is what’s captured, what else is happening that’s being missed? It seems there are more shenanigans happenings than just the exclusions. Based on the push back to this ruling, it seems the folks at City Hall have yet to learned their lesson.
I’ll give the last word to Michael Simon, the federal judge who ruled on Walsh’s case:
“A presiding officer may remove a disruptive individual from any particular meeting, and a sufficiently disruptive person may even be prosecuted for such conduct if public law permits. But no matter how many meetings of a city council a person disrupts, he or she does not forfeit or lose the future ability to exercise constitutional rights and may not be prospectively barred from attending future meetings. Our democratic republic is not so fragile, and our First Amendment is not so weak.”