Sucker-punched Asheville City Council Braces for Round Two

Sucker-punched Asheville City Council Braces for Round Two

Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads invade and shut down the Long Parliament, 1653

Parliamentary paralysis, “Public Filibuster” Drive Young’s police proposals through;

Kapoor calls foul, seeks June 19 do-over

Asheville City Council already had more than enough routine business scheduled for its upcoming  (June 19) meeting, but now it will also be dealing with the fallout from its actions of May 22.

That was the day council, caught flat-footed between a civil disobedience trick on one hand and internal shutuppery on the other, foggily passed a package of resolutions dealing with a topic that was not even on the agenda for discussion when the meeting started.

The topic was ways and means of further regulating police stop-and-search procedures so as to help prevent their disproportionately high use against non-whites.  The issue had been simmering on the back burner of Asheville governance since last year, but it boiled over early this April with the emergence of a body camera video that showed a black pedestrian being beaten by a white city police officer.  The incident attracted national attention and provoked a public furor in Asheville, calling all aspects of police procedure and administration into question.

The setup: How it all began

The published May 22 council agenda included hearing reports on ways to reduce racial disparity in random traffic stops, as well as an update from the equity and inclusion team that is looking into the beating incident.  But prior to 5 p.m. that day, attention was mostly focused on the scheduled public hearing for the city’s proposed 2018-19 budget.

The meeting was opened.  After council proclaimed “Vegan Challenge Week” and presented a Volunteer of the Year award, Mayor Esther Manheimer turned to the  consent  agenda, a list of routine business items usually approved en masse. She asked for, and received, a motion and a second to approve the consent agenda, and then a strange thing happened.

Article 5 of the city’s own Rules of Procedure states flatly, “A motion to approve the consent agenda shall not be debated or discussed.”  Yet at that point the mayor asked, “Is there anyone wishing to comment on the motion to adopt the consent agenda?”

Well, now that you mention it …

And just like that, activist and former council candidate Kim Roney appeared at the podium, at the head of a file of determined-looking people.  Roney demanded that council then and there add to the consent agenda a resolution to adopt an “open [police] data policy as presented by Code for Asheville.”

The policy in question was introduced at the April 24 council meeting by Patrick Conant on behalf of Code for Asheville, the local chapter of Code for America, a racial justice organization.

Roney announced that she and her contingent would successively use all the public comment time allotted to them to paralyze the proceedings until the topic was placed on the agenda for discussion and a vote.  She then plunged into a reading from the book “Twenty-seven Views of Asheville”.

A Public Filibuster:  “Conflict and drama where there was none before.”

The meeting was now in the grip of what Asheville’s Mountain Xpresscalled a “public filibuster,” which, it turns out, is an actual thing, though it won’t be found in Robert’s Rules of Order.  The term was coined, and the technique developed, by civil disobedience guru Daniel Hunter, who expounded on it in the 2012 book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for the Revolution.

“To an unsympathetic eye, disrupting a meeting can come across as mob rule, especially when poorly done,” Hunter cautioned.  “Calling the action a ‘public filibuster’ helps lend the kind of legitimacy recognized by reporters and the broader public … The public filibuster [works] by creating conflict and drama where there was none before.”

Beautiful Trouble lists the public filibuster tactic alongside “infiltration”, “creative disruption”, and “sit-ins” as a means of derailing “establishment” meetings or gatherings.  (Enquiring Minds reached out to ask Roney if her group was familiar with Hunter’s work; she did not reply.)

It didn’t have to happen.

“She also has a great love of Robert’s Rules of Order.” (Mayor Esther Manheimer’s official City of Asheville biography)

“Also show some compassion for the chairperson, who is used to being in control,” Hunter advised his readers. “This action [the public filibuster] threatens their power and puts them in an awkward and uncomfortable position. Be gentle with them.”

Hunter did not mention a well-established parliamentary principle that can quash such antics if applied promptly.  Had it been employed at this point, it would have kept council in control of its meeting and rendered sympathy for the mayor unnecessary.

That principle is known in Robert’s Rules as “calling for the orders of the day,” or, in the city’s rulebook, a “call to follow the agenda.”  Any councilor can make it; it requires no second or discussion,and it immediately puts the kibosh on any “out-of-order” item.  But there’s a catch:  the city’s rules say, “The motion must be made at the first reasonable opportunity, or the right to make it is waived … ”

But council made not a murmur; instead, as Roney began to read, it sat mute and watched its meeting go down the rabbit hole.

And that didn’t take very long.  As the second filibusterer, Andrew Vascoe, finished reading ten minutes’ worth of Kurt Vonnegut, councilor Shenieka Smith threw in the towel and moved to put Code for Asheville’s version of the open data policy on the agenda for a vote.  The vote passed 4-3, though in a flash of candor the mayor said,  “I voted for it; I will just add that I don’t know what it means, exactly.”

“What did we just do?”

That question occupied the next several minutes, as interim city manager Cathy Ball pointed out that most of the police data originally mentioned by Conant in April had already been put in public record and the remainder was being reviewed to make sure its release would not prejudice any existing cases or internal actions.

Council stopped thrashing about in the undergrowth of parliamentary procedure long enough to hear the scheduled point-counterpoint presentations about racial disparity in traffic stops from Ian Mancestaff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and Asheville police chief Tammy Hooper,

That exchange prompted councilor Brian Haynes to make a motion to instruct the city manager’s office to devise a written consent procedure for searching not only cars but personal effects, such as backpacks.  Councilor Keith Young at once asked Haynes to withdraw his motion so that Young could “build on that” and introduce a trio of motions he just happened to have with him.  Young’s motions called for:

  1. Establishing written consent for police searches of both cars and personal property;
  2. “Deprioritizing” traffic stops looking for infractions such as expired license and registration.
  3. Eliminating “suspicious behavior” and prior criminal records as considerations for conducting searches.

There was a second and Young’s proposals now had legs.  But councilor Vijay Kapoor demurred, saying Young’s resolutions should be acted on by the book – that is, sent to and reported out by committee — before being offered for a vote.

“With all due respect,” Young interrupted, “We’ve been there before.”

“I’ve heard this presentation for the fourth time,” said Haynes.

True, said Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, but not in the context of being real live resolutions.  “If you haven’t told people you’re going to vote on it, then you don’t have an opportunity for their opinion.  I mean, that’s what agendas are for,” she said.

“If you feel this is not the right time or place, then vote against it,” Young countered.

The mayor seemed disoriented.  She finally asked if there could be a motion to lay Young’s package on the table for future consideration.

“I will not make a motion to lay it on the table,” said Young.  “Call the question.”

“What – you don’t want public comment?”  the mayor asked, and Young shook his head.

“Okaaay,” the mayor said.

Calling “Call the Question” into question

Young thus invoked what has been called “the most abused motion” in Robert’s Rules.  To “call the question” (more appropriately “to move the previous question”) is to seek to shut down all debate on a motion and force a vote immediately.

According to both Robert’s Rulesand city procedures, thoughcalling the question is itself a motion and requires a vote, with a two-thirds majority to pass.  “A single member cannot force the end of debate,” Robert’ssays.

Moreover, city rules state that a move to call the question “is not in order until there have been at least 20 minutes of debate, and every member has had an opportunity to speak once.”  Just under five minutes elapsed between Young’s introduction of his resolutions and his demand to close debate.

None of which, it turned out, made any difference. Young’s motions were voted on without further ado and passed on 5-2 votes, Wisler and Kapoor dissenting.

The meeting went on for almost another three hours, as council plodded through business that ordinarily would have attracted considerable attention, including presentation and public discussion of the budget.  Instead there was a prevailing air of what’s-done-is-done-and-we’ve-all-missed-supper. But then Kapoor woke everybody up with a parting shot.

“I want to comment on what happened tonight relating to council’s actions on the written consent and search policy,” he began, and there was a ripple of sudden attentiveness in the room.

“We talk about the importance of transparency and democratic process, but we violated every tenet of that tonight … I’m embarrassed, and I want to apologize to the citizens of Asheville,” Kapoor said.

“At the next meeting, I will ask council to reconsider what was done and to have this issue go through the normal committee process, studied appropriately and then brought back to the full council,” Kapoor said in a written statement published later.

“It is my understanding that Council will again consider those measures at our June 19thmeeting with written resolutions, notice on the agenda and an opportunity for public comment,” Kapoor  told Enquiring Minds.  He later confirmed that he’ll be looking to rescind each of the three resolutions and send them to committee for further study.

Reconsideration of Young’s resolutions is now listed on council’s official agenda for June 19, under “Unfinished Business.”

Victory Lap

Activists celebrated the passage of Young’s trio of resolutions.  Young was praised for his “leadership” and council’s action was hailed as “courageous” and “compassionate.”  Conversely, the dissenters were duly noted:  “[Wisler and Kapoor] voted against.  This must be remembered,” one Facebook member stated darkly.

There were others who saw council’s actions as a combination of incompetence and cowardice that allowed the city’s governing body to be hamstrung by a combination of bluffing and coercion.

“Before this instance, Mayor Manheimer was known for her tough and disciplined approach in discussing issues and at any point [she] could have stopped the fiasco,” former council candidate Mark Cates said. “Instead, Manheimer turned a blind-eye to former Asheville City Council candidate Kim Roney’s and Councilman Young’s bullying and blatant attempt to shortcut democracy.”

Meanwhile, North Carolina Police Benevolent Association Director John Midgette told council via letter that his organization considers the city to have violated its own charter by cutting off public comment when Young made his motion.  And the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police released a statement saying, “Police policies dictated by political concerns or agendas are as objectionable as racial profiling, are wasteful of resources, and are counterproductive to public safety.”

Coming Attractions

In anticipation of Kapoor’s stated intent to try to get the resolution votes reversed, activists put out a call for demonstration volunteers and contacted city hall to ask for a change of meeting venue to the U.S. Cellular Center, in anticipation of a huge crowd and “national media.” One Facebook member claimed to have spoken with a member of city staff and said, “it’s a done deal.”  But COA communications specialist Polly McDaniel told Enquiring Mindson July 12, “As of now, the June 19 City Council meeting will be held in City Hall.”

The meeting begins at 5 p.m.  Admission is free.

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