Fine line between free speech and abuse of town staff members

By Linda Bentley | August 20, 2008

Mayor pledges to step in when someone steps over line
CAVE CREEK – The hostility in the air during the Aug. 4 town council meeting made sitting through the five-hour meeting somewhat uncomfortable at times.

Apparently it was far worse for staff members, which precipitated Planning Director Ian Cordwell’s Aug. 8 memo to Mayor Vincent Francia.

Cordwell wrote, “The town council spends the majority of its working time in public meetings. The community’s impression of the council depends on how the public meeting is conducted.”

He then cited guidelines from the Planning and Zoning Handbook published by the Arizona Department of Commerce for conducting successful public meetings, which included:
1. The mayor, as chair of the town Council’s public meetings, plays a very important role in ensuring that the meeting is conducted smoothly and that the agenda is adhered to.
2. The role of the chair is to insure that the meeting is kept under control and that members of the public do not clap, cheer, or otherwise disrupt the meeting.
3. The chair should prevent council members or members of the public from accusing or overtly challenging each other, staff, members of the public, or persons testifying.
4. The discussion should focus on the facts presented, not on the presenters.
5. Applicants, town staff and members of the public providing testimony should be afforded the same courtesy, attention, and time before the council.
6. Communication should be formal and conducted in a civil and mutually respectful manner.

franciacordwellCordwell pointed out town staff had recently “become the focus of personal attacks during town council meetings with certain individuals alleging that staff actions are dishonest, disingenuous and obfuscating the issues presented,” and stated the attacks on personal and professional integrity of staff generally occurred during Call to the Public and public comment segments of an agendized item.

“Due to the structure of the hearing process, and the freedom given to an individual speaker to say whatever he or she should choose without the chair interceding where appropriate,” Cordwell said, “town staff is left in a position of being defamed publicy with no recourse available to them to defend their professional and personal reputations.”

Although he did not mention any names, Cordwell’s choice of adjectives to describe the personal attacks on town staff clearly implicated Terry Zerkle, Councilwoman Grace Meeth and Councilman Gilbert Lopez as offenders.

Noting town staff’s function is to provide pertinent information and facts to assist council in making relevant decisions, Cordwell said, “The staff endeavors to provide the best available information” based upon their research, professional knowledge and experience.

While Cordwell stated staff has a full understanding of its role in the democratic process, citizens’ right to freedom of speech and the public hearing process, and embraces the input and opinion of others, he also acknowledged that their opinions and positions may not be shared by individual council members and some members of the public, which he agreed was a healthy and necessary part of the discussion.

“However,” Cordwell said, “to have their personal and professional integrity and motivation questioned in this public format is at best inappropriate, inflammatory and irresponsible and at worse is potentially defamatory and could have serious legal consequences.”

He said, “This behavior certainly brings no credit upon the individual making the unsubstantiated accusation and, if left unchecked most certainly reflects poorly upon the reputation of the town.”

Cordwell, on behalf of town staff, respectfully requested that Francia, through his role as chair of the town council public hearing process, take the necessary steps to ensure that type of inappropriate behavior is no longer allowed to continue.

Francia responded by thanking Cordwell for bringing the matter to his attention and said he assumed “the verbal conduct of some members of council and a few citizens at the town council meeting … precipitated the reason if not the urgency of this memo. In other words, this matter had reached a boiling point.”

Apologizing to everyone on town staff, including the town manager, Francia cited his failure “to notice, much less act as mayor and chair of the council to curtail in a respectful manner any member of the public or any of my fellow council members that went over the line of what is considered proper and decorous ‘free speech.’”

Francia said, “This apology is personal (I am not speaking for council), for it is my responsibility and mine alone as chair to promote respectful free speech and to ensure free speech is not abused.”

Stating, “As mayor, I walk a fine line between honoring free speech and stepping in when free speech is being abused,” Francia reiterated the demoralizing affect such conduct had on staff.

Francia pledged, “Henceforth, the mayor will step in with a warning to a citizen or council member when free speech is being abused. An example of abuse is unwarranted criticism and unsubstantiated accusations. When council members or citizens stray from the agenda item at hand, I will remind them to stay on point. And, most important of all, staff members will be accorded the right to respond to answer any question(s), or if necessary, to defend themselves from inappropropriate verbal abuse,” and asked Cordwell to please convey his message to staff.

Photo: Mayor Vincent Francia and Planning Director Ian Cordwell
Photo by Linda Bentley