BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Not too many people in the community attend Los Alamos County Council meetings, so when a column by League of Women Voters co-presidents is regarding civility issues is published by local media, readers are curious to know what has been going on. What would prompt Council Chair Randall Ryti to tell the Reporter he plans to add Public Comment to a future Council meeting or meetings for discussion and possible action?
Ryti told the Reporter that he had spoken to County staff about public comment and it is clear that the Council needs to provide direction to him as the Chair on the circumstances for cutting off discussion.
“I have been thinking about how best to obtain public input during our limited public forums at Council meetings. It is clear that I can control disruptive or overly repetitive speakers and impose time limits,” he said.
Ryti said he had watched the video of the Council February 22 meeting’s public comments on the code compliance survey, as well as Councilor comments and the final public comments.
“I spoke to Councilor (David) Izraelevitz the morning after the meeting. I apologized for not recognizing him shortly after Mr. (Antonio) Maggiore started his comments. I did not realize Councilor Izraelevitz was interrupting with a point of order. Council rules require me to recognize a point of order. After listening to these comments I understand what Councilor Izraelevitz found objectionable in the initial remarks. I did not feel it was appropriate to make any further comments at the meeting without having reviewed the meeting recording. I will clarify the process for Councilors to raise an objection and I will again read the Council rule regarding courtesy and decorum at the beginning of Council meetings,” Ryti told the Reporter.
At the February 28 joint meeting of Council and the Los Alamos Public Schools board, Ryti began by offering a public apology to Izraelevitz for not recognizing him during the February 22 Council meeting.
“He was trying to make a point of order and I should have known that he could interrupt for that reason. I have deep respect for Councilor Izraelevitz and I hope that he will accept my apology,” Ryti said.
Ryti said he wanted to reiterate the Council Rules regarding courtesy, decorum and public comment.
“The chair should always ensure that the debate or discussion of an agenda item focus on the item or the policy in question, not the personalities of the Councilors, staff or the public. Debate on policy is healthy, debate on personalities is not,” he said.
He went on to quote the current rules which state that the chair has the right to cut off discussion that is too personal, to loud, too unprofessional or too crude. The rules state that public input is essential for healthy democracy and continuing participation is an important element of that input.
“The challenge for anyone chairing a public meeting it to accommodate public input in a timely and time-sensitive way while maintaining steady progress through the agenda items. The rules presented here for conducting a Council meeting are offered as tools for effective leadership and developing sound policy,” he read.
At the end of the that meeting, Councilor Sean Williams said he wanted to bookend the meeting where it started.
“Public comment is not really a creature of the procedural rules, it’s a right guaranteed by the County Charter. But more to the point, political speech is one of the most strongly protected forms of speech under the U.S. Constitution. So I believe that attempting to police the content of public comment would be a disastrous move by this Council and certainly not one that I would ever go along. So I certainly hope that you will consider your stance on that matter,” Williams said.
In January, Izraelevitz publicly criticized Ryti for his handling of comments by the public as he made a bid for election to the Council chair position which was ultimately retained by Ryti. See
Perhaps an account of some of the statements and public comments made during the February 22 meeting will help answer the question frequently asked of the Reporter – what brought the issue of civility or lack of it into the public forum in recent months?
Councilors listened to a presentation by County staff and County consultants on a recent survey on code enforcement within the County, which drew criticism from several members of the community during prior Council meetings. There was an issue with photos of identifiable properties in the County being used as graphics for some of the questions in the survey, including a photo of former councilor Antonio Maggiore’s property. (See https://losalamosreporter.com/2021/12/29/former-councilor-antonio-maggiore-voices-displeasure-at-photo-included-in-county-code-enforcement-survey/) At the February 22 meeting, when it came time for public comment on the survey agenda item, Maggiore was the first to comment.
“First I would like to thank Los Alamos County and Miss Erin Coldwell and Polco for using photos of my property without my consent. I think that’s just a bitch-ass move personally,” he said. I want to thank Council for choosing not to reject…” At that point, Councilor David Izraelevitz interjected, “Mr. Chair, before we..” however Maggiore continued speaking saying that a property value driven aesthetic model of code enforcement is not the preference of the community.
Maggiore said the photos were not designed to help elucidate anything in the survey.
“These were visuals that were clearly designed and chosen to incriminate certain properties,” he said. At that point Izraelevitz again tried to interject.
Maggiore continued, “I’ve listened to Councilor Izraelevitz make comments about neighborhood aesthetics and neighborhood values but I would refer this Council to his previous comments from the dais about the fact that he does not shovel his own yard or his neighborhood as proof that Councilor Izraelevitz comments about neighbor (inaudible) values ring nothing but hollow. Lastly, when Paul Andrus says he has never cited a slide in the front yard, that’s probably only because that slide was moved to the back yard within the two-week window. This issue rankles me beyond belief. And I listen to the absolute hypocrisy from some members of Council when they talk about this issue and it just makes me want to vomit. You guys, if there’s one thing that this survey has proved is that property value driven aesthetics are not what this County is looking for.”
Councilor Izraelevitz said, “Mr. Chair, before we go to the next comment, I know that there’s First Amendment rights – people can say what they want to say, but I think it would be appropriate to reiterate that mature, respectful commentary is appropriate in this venue, and one can express passionate feelings without resorting to inappropriate language that has repeatedly been applied by certain members of the public that is just unnecessary and also put on top of that a kind of personal attack on a Councilor – I think that is something that frankly you Mr. Chair can respond to. This has happened repeatedly. I don’t know what I can respond to at this point. And Mr. Maggiore, I have shoveled other people’s driveway. I don’t have a sidewalk so I can’t shovel my sidewalk but I don’t know what else to say. It just seems like a repeated abuse of the right to make comment and I would appreciate if the Chair would apply some of the Chair’s discretion to comment and try to control this type of commentary because it’s just inappropriate and not conducive to the type of discussions that we want to have. So I apologize for my interruption but I thought it was appropriate to make a timely comment”.
Chair Ryti responded that when Izraelevitz was interrupting, he didn’t hear the particular comment but that he certainly would go back and listen to it.
“I don’t want to repeat it but it started with a b and I thought the second word was not objectionable but there was no need for the adjective,” Izraelevitz responded.
As public comment proceeded, Aaron Walker said it is really vindicating to see the results of the survey being because they show exactly what he has been saying for the past three years – that the County wants a more health and safety driven nuisance code than aesthetics and weeds based.
“The only problem is, it’s bitter sweet because this survey was so biased that you can’t take any of the results at face value. You must redo the survey. I wonder what results you’ll get back if and when you choose to redo it and make it an unbiased survey because then you will probably see that the number is even more skewed in that direction,” Walker said. “As far as the criticism of Councilors goes, I think that if you can’t stand to be criticized, you shouldn’t be putting yourself in a position to be a leader in this community and open yourself up to that kind of criticism. If you’re not willing to take the criticism, don’t run for public office. You know it’s going to happen. You know people that people are not going to be happy with the way you do things. The one side or the other – some people are not going to be happy, period. So let’s toss these survey results.”
The next commenter Brandi Engeman said she just wanted to first of all thank Councilors Ryti and Williams for really highlighting some of the points that several of people have kind of stewed on over some of the meetings about this survey and code complaints and also to thank them for making really intelligent comments.
“And kind of on the same lines as what Mr. Walker said, I’m really disappointed that we do have a First Amendment right – that sometimes that’s going to mean that bad words get used – or maybe that a councilperson might even joke about spousal abuse from the dais,” Engeman said. “I’m really disappointed that you can’t handle a little bit of adult language in a very heated argument…Honestly sometimes things are going to get heated; you’re going to feel maybe a little picked-on, but we’re your constituents and it’s going to go that way sometimes.”
Commenter Grant Harding also weighed in on the public comment issue.
“I would just like to point out that more than not, arguments for decorum when coming from positions of power are red herrings or silencing tactics and we should avoid those especially when we’re talking about such a sensitive and problematic issue. What is really concerning is just the subjective manner in which that’s being applied. What’s inappropriate might be, ‘We don’t want all the votes; we want the right votes’. To some, that’s far more inappropriate than an occasional foul word and it’s certainly inappropriate to be fining our citizens for really ordinary neighborhood behaviors.”
Harding continued, “I think again, to echo what everybody else has had to say here, the results of this survey certainly do vindicate those of us who’ve been vocal about code enforcement in general and the way that the survey went out – the wording of the survey, the questions, the photos, all of it. So I hope the Council will take that under consideration, redo the survey, reconsider code enforcement towards health and safety and away from property aesthetics”.
Councilor David Reagor commented that when there’s a’n agenda item, the discussion has to be about the agenda item.
“And if personal attacks are on people who may be our visitors or Councilors or maybe someone who’s giving testimony, that is not really to the agenda, so it’s perfectly for the chair to cut it off as discussion if it’s not on the agenda item.
“In fact, I think it’s kind of an obligation because that’s how the Open Meetings Act works. The agenda is here for a reason. Even though I may agree with some of the comments being made, we can’t take someone like our visitor today presenting the data and disparage them personally based on a dispute over material that turns into something personal. I think you actually should cut that off as some not to agenda and inappropriate discussion…I think that the chair should stop that kind of discussion when it departs from the work of the Council.” Reagor said.
Councilor Melanee Hand said she agrees with what Reagor said.
“I think that if we have disparaging remarks that are not related to the agenda that that should be stopped,” she said.
Maggiore again spoke under the final public comment section of the meeting.
“First off, to Council, I’m sorry if my colorful language tonight offended anyone’s delicate sensibilities. Firstly I want to commend the chair for his defense of mine and all citizens’ rights to make under the 1st Amendment. As was made patently clear tonight, had other people been the chair, that would not have been the case,” Maggiore said. “Moving forward, I will do my best to use less (sic) adulty words in the future, providing Council’s actions don’t provoke me to be so moved. But I would like to take umbrage at Councilor Reagor’s comment. To say that my comments were not germane to the issue at hand when my photos were used in the survey is patently disrespectful and I will leave it at that.”
Brandi Engeman also spoke again.
“When we talk about things that are or are not on topic with regards to agenda items, when a Councilor opens the door and starts talking about things and basically shutting down public comment because they’re uncomfortable with the language, they have moved past that agenda item and they’ve opened up that topic to the rest of us who are making public on that agenda item, to throw in a little bit of our feedback in that,” Engeman said. “I could be off base on that but I hope that in the future when you’re considering when to cut someone off, make sure that you’re not doing it just because maybe there’s strong emotions in the room and that the topic is really off topic before you cut a person off. I would like to think that Mr. Maggiore’s comments were incredibly on topic. He was talking about the survey and photos used in that survey, and his language choice was unfortunate but it was on topic. So to say that it was off topic was a little far-stretched.”
The Reporter has found that any discussion of regulating public comment at County meetings seems to bring up First Amendment rights. Preliminary research on the subject indicates that when a government body allows public comment at its meetings, it can limit comments to the relevant subject matter, control disruptive or overly repetitive speakers and impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech. Generally, the Reporter found that restrictions on speech must be content-neutral, and that government bodies can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions as long as those restrictions are not selectively applied to certain speakers.
It is important to note that the February 22 Council is not the first Council meeting which has caused questions to be raised about decorum and civility. The tone at Council meetings has certainly changed over the past year or so as the few regular attendees will attest.
An announcement in August about a Council town hall where commercial landlords included the request, “We ask that all interactions be considerate and respectful” drew a written response obtained by the Reporter that was received by Council from a member of the public who said it is not the job of public officials to police public discourse.
“The best that you can do as public servants to promote respectful and constructive discourse is to model respectful and constructive discourse yourself,” she said.
She said angry or disrespectful public comments should be allowed.
“People should know that they can be disrespectful or inconsiderate and their government won’t cut off the microphone,” she said.
The Reporter found that those who feel the Council Rules on decorum should be somehow enforced chose not to comment for this story.
It will be interesting to see what advice the County Attorney’s Office will offer on the subject once the issue appears on the County Council agenda for discussion.