Decorum Key Issue at Charleston Council Meeting

August 30, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveCouncilman Timothy Mallard had center stage at the Aug. 17 Charleston City Council meeting, but you wouldn’t have known it from observing him or listening to other council members. He remained impassive during speeches and his name was never mentioned.

But it was Mallard who inspired fellow Councilman Aubry Alexander to draft an ordinance that attempted to define rules of decorum and penalties for breaches by members at council meetings.

The topic became an issue thanks to a confrontation between Mallard, Mayor Joe Riley and Clerk of Council Vanessa Turner-Maybank at the end of the previous council meeting.

The issue was the alleged omission of comments by the council member from the minutes of the prior meeting. Mallard spoke harshly about the omission at that meeting but the confrontation after the close of the meeting was even more fiery, with raised voices.

Alexander apparently thought the entire affair unnecessary and proposed the restraining ordinance, which can be seen here. Councilman Gary White Jr. moved immediately to support it.

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie was not far behind in opposing it. Among points raised: Who would define “decorum” and “unparliamentary behavior?”

He also said that as he understood the proposed ordinance, the presiding officer had too much power. And the possible charge of “misdemeanor” was too harsh as under state law it could mean a council member could be removed from office.

Alexander was swayed to some extent by Gregorie’s comments and seemed happy with a deferral to allow further study. But he also said that residents should not be held to higher standards than council members.

He noted an ordinance had been passed by council some years ago imposing a level of decorum and behavior on citizens speaking in residents’ participation portion of meetings. If there were a rule for residents, there should be one for council members, he said.

All council members expressed the need to maintain a high level of decorum at meetings but some thought that an ordinance was unnecessary. Council member Jimmy Gallant III thought that Riley had the power to bring members into order and that he had done a good job in the past of defusing nasty situations.

Councilman Louis Waring said that council members should be able to restrain themselves in discussion. He said staff were hardworking and should always be treated with respect. Residents did not have a high regard for council members, he said, and council members should do better. Council member Kathleen Wilson endorsed this view.

Mallard broke his silence on the issue by noting that if the mayor had the right to impose decorum on citizens speaking in residents’ participation, why didn’t he exercise it? He noted that one resident had made had made insulting comments about some council members and was not censured.

Riley rose at the conclusion of the discussion and said that he tended to make greater allowance for residents in their speeches. He seemed to applaud Alexander for his intent but added that he did not seek extra authority. But the mayor did note the confrontation with a council member and the threatening tones.

Council voted unanimously to defer the issue and for staff to further study the proposed ordinance.