In the last nine months, the Charlotte City Council and Mayor Jennifer Roberts have been assailed in public – and on live television – by protesters of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, immigration advocates and by those on both sides of the abortion debate.
At times, the citizen’s forum grew so heated that council members and Roberts left the dais to a chorus of boos and jeers, and some officials worried about their own safety.
In response, council members have quietly decided to turn off the cameras.
Republican council member Kenny Smith said he and his colleagues felt the bi-monthly citizen’s forum had “drifted” from its intent for citizens to ask officials for help with things like fixing potholes. He said council felt that having the forum on television was making tense situations volatile.
“We haven’t changed the number of people who can speak, and when they can speak,” said Smith, who is running for mayor. Smith chairs the council’s governance and accountability committee, which made the recommendation in April.
The city has held two citizen’s forums a month, where 10 people can speak for three minutes each on any topic. One citizen’s forum is held in a small meeting room in the Government Center and isn’t on TV. That hasn’t changed.
The second forum was held in the main meeting room and was broadcast live on the Government Channel. That’s where much of the chaos ensued.
The city’s new policy, which went into effect Monday, shifts that citizen’s forum to the small meeting room. It won’t be broadcast on TV.
The change caps what has been perhaps the most intense nine months any council has faced.
“I remember watching on TV and thinking, what in the hell has happened?” said Richard Vinroot, who was mayor from 1991-95, about citizen’s forums involving the Scott shooting and federal immigration raids. “I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I understand people are hot, I understand they are upset. But I would have shut down the meeting.”
Vinroot said as Charlotte continues to grow, it’s not surprising that some older traditions of civility might erode. But he said the recent citizen’s forums have crossed a line, he said.
“Television does cause people to show off,” he said.
Braxton Winston spoke at Monday’s meeting about the council’s plans to repeal the Extraordinary Events ordinance, which was passed before the Democratic National Convention in 2012. Winston, who is the only person ever arrested for violating the ordinance, was detained for having a gas mask – a prohibited item – outside Bank of America Stadium after the Scott shooting.
Winston would have been on television had he appeared at a council meeting a month earlier. He said he doesn’t understand why the city is no longer televising the citizen’s forum.
“Why would you not want to increase ways for people to be engaged?” said Winston, who is considering running for City Council this fall. “I don’t understand it.”
In September, a week after the Scott shooting, council held a regularly scheduled forum that was broadcast on TV.
With the chamber filled with Black Lives Matter activists and other people upset about the shooting, Roberts and council extended the forum, essentially letting everyone vent. The meeting quickly slid into chaos. Speakers cursed at council members. Some threatened them.
That same meeting also produced some poignant moments. Zianna Oliphant, a young girl, spoke through tears as she talked about her and other’s fears of the police.
In February, immigration activists filled the council chamber’s during the televised citizen’s forum. They too cursed at elected officials, and even succeeded in shutting down the entire meeting. After a standoff, elected officials went into the lobby and began talking with people in small groups. There were no television cameras in the lobby, and the situation was quickly diffused.
In March, another televised citizen’s forum turned hot, this time over the city’s consideration of placing no parking signs in front of an abortion clinic. Pro-abortion rights advocates had asked for the signs because they said anti-abortion groups were parking large RVs in front of the clinic, making it difficult for women to enter.
The back-and-forth over the abortion clinic was less intense than the Scott and immigration forums, though it was still heated. At one point, an anti-abortion speaker refused to stop speaking after his time was allotted, and told council members they would be going to hell.
There will still be some citizen’s comments broadcast on TV. When there is an agenda item, such as the city’s legal protections for the LGBT community, speakers will discuss the issue in the main council chambers – and on TV.